It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this: our guide to spotting dark patterns across the web.
Previously, we covered the basics of Dark Patterns and why they’ll likely be sticking around for awhile. Luckily, we don’t need to sit idly by as bad actors clog up the web with unethical practices. We can learn how to avoid these techniques, making them less effective, and we can work together to shed light on dark patterns by sharing our experiences on social media. The internet will never be without con artists but our efforts can help others avoid these pitfalls and make the web a safer place for everyone.
Here are several examples of the most common dark patterns we’ve seen across the internet.
This company tricked users into swiping into their ad by placing a fake hair in the design. (Photo credit Blake Robbins)
The Pattern: Bait and Switch
What It Is: The user wants to complete a task and the company wants to inhibit that action, so the company creates a design that tricks the user into doing the opposite of what they intended.
How to Spot It: These typically come in the form of annoying ads, tricky ways to keep you subscribed to a service, or when it’s time to make a purchase and the company wants an upsell. Keep your eyes peeled when it comes time to make a purchasing decision or interact with a call to action.
Fake download buttons plague the software section of CNET’s website.
The Pattern: Disguised Ads
What It Is: Ads designed to look like other portions of a website (e.g. navigation elements or native content), often used by spammers to get an initial click into their website.
How to Spot It: A common sight on pretty much any website offering downloads, we’ll often see these ads mimicking the key CTA on a page (e.g., “Start Download”) or pretending to be the first step toward a typical user action (e.g., “Start Your Free Trial Now”).
One of several iterations of Amazon’s cancellation process. The myriad guides on how to cancel Prime memberships show the difficulty users have found in this process.
The Pattern: Forced Continuity
What It Is: A company attempts to lengthen a subscription or prevent a bounce by making it more difficult for the user to opt-out than it is to continue the service.
How to Spot It: This is possibly the easiest pattern to spot because it always occurs at the same time– when you want to cancel a subscription or purchase. When choosing to discontinue an online service, pay close attention to the specific CTAs on each page and look for a solid confirmation that your original goal was completed (e.g., Sorry to see you go).
Clicking on an advertisement for Invision takes you to a landing page with one possible CTA, forcing users to bounce and attempt to visit the regular website via another means.
The Pattern: Misdirection
What It Is: Tailoring a design or experience to promote a specific outcome for the company and hide other, likely more desirable, options from users.
How to Spot It: Ads on social media and the top of your Google search results, especially for companies offering software as a service. Across the entire web, companies are using their premium ad spaces to takes users to landing pages that only serve one purpose– conversions. This pattern is the #1 reason I no longer click on ads for companies or products that I am interested in (instead, I use Google to find the homepage of their website).
Marketo does not list any actual prices on their website.
The Pattern: Price Comparison Prevention
What It Is: Preventing prospective customers from seeing the prices of your products, making it impossible to compare the return on investment between them.
How to Spot It: This is another pattern that is hard to miss. The key here is to determine how to approach this situation when you encounter it. First, see if you can find the information elsewhere via forums or third party reviews. Second, if the product is potentially worth the effort, contact the company for pricing and let them know the decision to hide these numbers has negatively impacted your impression of them.
The Pattern: Privacy Zuckering
What It Is: Convincing users to give away more of their personal information than they normally would by connecting the decision with other, more desirable outcomes.
How to Spot It: Websites and apps offering social media logins. If you don’t want your data from both services to be shared with both companies (and potentially others), you’ll likely need to avoid them completely. If you’re wary of how much data you’re sharing when you use these logins, you can often determine what you share before completing the process or delve into the privacy settings to change it later.
Hubspot’s enormous list of checkboxes. There’s an ‘unsubscribe from all’ button conveniently located underneath all of the aforementioned checkboxes.
The Pattern: Roach Motel
What It Is: After making the sign-up process fast and easy, the website makes it much harder to close the account or cancel the subscription.
How to Spot It: Another contextual pattern, this one is most often seen when it is time to change the status of a subscription. Look toward the top and bottom of the page for a catch-all call to action that is hidden behind other, more cumbersome calls to action.
Laptops Direct automatically adds three extra products when you put an item in your cart.
The Pattern: Sneak Into Basket
What It Is: A retailer automatically adds products to your cart after you’ve selected your desired item, often making it cumbersome to remove the unwanted products.
How to Spot It: This pattern typically occurs right as you select your first item for purchase or when you first view your cart at checkout.
As our world grows more technologically advanced, we have to educate ourselves on how we can protect our information and how we can be aware of scamming patterns companies use to try to trick us into consuming items or services we may not even want.
Interested in learning more about dark patterns? You can visit darkpatterns.org to read about every type of pattern and see more real life examples of each one. You can also read our introductory article to get a better definition of the term or our article on Dark Notifications.
Nathan Davis contributed to this article.
Also published on Medium.