July 22, 2019

Dark Patterns Get You To Buy Things You Don't Want

Dark patterns on the web are bad for consumers

Dark patterns, a practice that uses sketchy UX to trick users into making unintended decisions, are nothing new and pollute many e-commerce sites across the net. If you’ve ever booked a flight online, you’ve probably seen callouts informing you that only a few seats were left, a great way to increase your purchasing urgency. Chances are though, the flight is not anywhere near fully booked, and you’ve been suckered into making quick decisions. These UX techniques are becoming even more prevalent, often to the detriment of consumers.

Dark patterns deceive consumers

Dark patterns are a byproduct of proactive and often nefarious human designs. Companies seek to maximize profits by nature and employ many techniques that can legally achieve this end. Web designers leverage their understanding of online habits with behavioral patterns to optimize certain responses. Major tech companies have enlisted the help of behaviorists and gambling experts to redesign apps in the past as a means of increasing engagement. Casinos are regulated entities—apps and online shopping stores are not. However, consumers are none the wiser, often acting upon false stimuli to make brash decisions out of fear of missing out on deals. Many concerned parties are now paying attention.

Regulators are on the prowl

In an environment of heightened scrutiny, regulators are keeping tabs on a wide number of tech companies. Facebook comes to mind as it looks to expand its e-commerce capabilities, especially through payment initiatives like Libra. Regulatory bodies exist to protect consumers from abuses, including dark patterns like those you see across e-commerce websites. One problem remains: how can regulators properly address what is a dark pattern, and what is deemed acceptable? In addition, how can consumers better protect themselves to avoid falling into these traps? This will be a long battle, especially given how slow regulators both pick up on abuses and enact laws.

Result chasing lead to dark patterns

Where do we draw the line between crafty salesmanship and shady user manipulation? Perhaps this is subjective, but dark patterns are a systemic result of bad incentives. E-commerce sites track an array of metrics, though some are more salient than others. You’ll often hear about Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) or Average Order Value (AOV), data-points that all platforms seek to improve. How do sites achieve these targets? Either through cutthroat pricing or dubious techniques, tricking consumers into buying items they either don’t want or need. Companies create urgency by creating false discounts, fake purchases, and fake reviews. In addition, achieving such goals lead to unintended and negative consequences. By selling more stuff, especially stuff we don’t need, we deplete resources in the name of growth. These dark patterns supercharge metrics like GMV and AOV, but subsequently, lead to more long-term problems.

A creative solution?

The ultimate goal is to protect and better inform consumers. There is nothing wrong with optimizing e-commerce stores, so long as the techniques are honest and transparent. Since businesses generally have no incentive to do so, how can consumers fight back? One way would be to simply boycott firms that use such techniques. Consumers can and do band together to make their voices heard—we could expect a similar response if companies keep abusing these processes. In addition, some e-commerce platforms can highlight their sales processes and responsible practices to entice shoppers, reaping the benefits through stronger engagement. Until then, consumers will just need to keep their eyes peeled.

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