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Govt Drafts Guidelines To Curb Dark Patterns Online: 10 Ways Platforms Trick You

Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

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Several online platforms that you visit, including e-commerce players and streaming sites, may try to influence your decisions – often without you even realising it.

In an attempt to crackdown on such 'dark patterns', the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs recently released draft guidelines that will be open for public feedback till 5 October 2023.

The proposed draft guidelines for the prevention and regulation of dark patterns reportedly comes after consultations with various stakeholders such as the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), e-commerce platforms, consumer associations, and others.

"Guidelines would be made applicable to all the persons and online platforms including sellers and advertisers," it added.

Since the proposed guidelines appear to be voluntary in nature, here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns online – so that you can avoid being tricked by companies regardless.

Govt Drafts Guidelines To Curb Dark Patterns Online: 10 Ways Platforms Trick You

  1. 1. But First, What Exactly Are Dark Patterns?

    The term 'dark patterns', also called deceptive patterns, was coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull, a user experience (UX) consultant, when he founded a website dedicated to naming different dark patterns and exposing companies that used them.

    On his page, he described deceptive patterns as "tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to, like buying or signing up for something."

    However, the draft guidelines define dark patterns as "any practices or deceptive design patterns using UI/UX (user interface/user experience) interactions on any platform; designed to mislead or trick users to do something they originally did not intend or want to do; by subverting or impairing the consumer autonomy, decision making or choice; amounting to misleading advertisement or unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights."

    In a study published by Northeastern University in October 2021, alarming statistics regarding the usage of dark patterns were found:

    • 95 percent of the top 240 Android apps employed deceptive patterns

    • Well over 50 percent of major websites used dark patterns

    A 2021 Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) study that studied ads published by influencers on social media between 2021-22 also found that 29 percent of these ads had misleading dark patterns.

    Another study conducted at MIT in 2020 found that after presenting participants with data collection requests using pop-ups from popular websites, people were anywhere from 8-23 percent likelier to consent to tracking when dark patterns were used in the notices. This proved the highly effective nature of these patterns.

    Now that you know how common and manipulative deceptive patterns can be, let's look at some of the most frequently employed ones, using information we collated from Brignull's catalogue.

    Expand
  2. 2. Confirm-Shaming

    Confirm-shaming is a tactic used to pressure a user into opting for something, like sharing their contact details or subscribing to a newsletter, by making the other option seem undesirable.

    Companies that confirm-shame will often word the 'deny' option in a manner that triggers emotions like guilt or shame. By targeting a user's feelings, they are more likely to do the business' bidding.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    An example of confirm-shaming. The option to opt out of providing an email address is worded in such a way that it mocks and belittles the user.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Expand
  3. 3. Fake Scarcity

    Fake scarcity works by making it seem like a good or service has limited availability, encouraging users to act quickly out of fear of missing out. This is achieved by displaying misleading information regarding minimal stock or high demand, effectively making the item appear more 'exclusive', when in reality, it is not.

    In turn, shoppers will feel a sense of urgency to purchase the commodity and the business will get more sales.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    In this example, it is made to seem like the product is highly valued using false information regarding the item's sales and stock level.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Expand
  4. 4. Hidden Costs

    Hidden costs, also referred to as 'junk fees' or 'drip pricing', are additional fees or charges that are obscured from a consumer's view until the final step of a product's often lengthy purchase process.

    These additional costs are initially omitted to make a product seem much cheaper than it really is, enticing shoppers to click on the item and buy it.

    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    In this example, we see 'service' and 'fulfilment' fees pop up just as the user is about to complete the transaction, making the final price 47% higher than advertised.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Corporations using junk fees will prolong and make inconvenient the process of buying a product, usually requiring the shopper to input an email address, phone number, date of birth, and similar information.

    Subsequently, when users finally reach the payment page, they continue despite the charges due to having already invested time and effort.
    Expand
  5. 5. Nagging

    Nagging is a dark pattern that involves repeatedly asking users for the same thing, often through pop-ups or notifications that are disruptive and annoying.

    In many cases, there is no way to stop it, as businesses intend to eventually break users and persuade them to agree.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    In 2018, Instagram aggressively pestered users to enable notifications repeatedly over months. Users only had the option of selecting "Not Now", which allowed Instagram to simply send the pop-up again another time.

    (Photo: Twitter)

    Expand
  6. 6. Preselection

    Preselection is the practice of automatically leaving certain boxes ticked, such as consent to use your email for marketing purposes. It's done in the hope that users won't notice and manually uncheck the box.

    It also takes advantage of the default effect cognitive bias: people are more likely to go with the approach already chosen for them.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    In this example, the option to receive marketing emails is already selected. Often, a user will not notice or read what they are agreeing to and proceed anyway.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Expand
  7. 7. Disguised Ads

    Disguised ads confuse users by purposefully blending the lines between real content and advertising. To increase the chance of users clicking on the ads, advertisements are frequently made to resemble interface elements, related articles, or other relevant content.

    This allows websites to generate much more ad revenue by misleading consumers.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    An example of an ad disguised as a download button. This is one of the most common implementations of disguised ads, where instead of downloading the program the user wants, clicking the button redirects the user to an external link.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Expand
  8. 8. Fake Urgency

    Many websites present consumers with false time limitations, often using countdowns to place a consumer under time pressure and give them a fake sense of urgency.

    Fake urgency can encourage impulsive purchases out of anxiety about missing out on a sale that wasn't actually going anywhere. This translates to more sales for businesses.
    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    This is an example of a fake countdown timer that claims a sale will end as it hits zero, prompting users to act quickly.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Expand
  9. 9. Visual Interference

    Visual interference is the act of hiding, obscuring, or disguising important information on a page when it should be displayed clearly. This is most commonly done with legal details, refund policies, or other particulars a website or app may want a user to miss.

    Corporations can use small, low-contrast text or put information in places users may not expect in an attempt to conceal info from consumers.

    Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

    An example from 2019 is when Tesla added an e-commerce feature to their mobile app allowing users to purchase upgrades for their cars. Developers hid information about the refund policy at the bottom of the screen using barely visible text.

    (Photo Courtesy: Reddit)

    Expand
  10. 10. The Roach Motel

    The Roach Motel (or Subscription Trap) is a deceptive pattern where signing up for a subscription or service is straightforward, but cancelling it is very difficult.

    It typically works by requiring users to call customer care to cancel, hiding the cancellation option, and making the process complex and time-consuming.

    Often, users will give up trying to cancel and pay for a longer period.

    In June, the US Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for using dark patterns to trick users, specifically by presenting them with several options to subscribe to Prime and making it harder for them to complete a transaction, according to a report by The Verge.

    The e-commerce major was also reportedly accused by the commission of forcing subscribers to go through multiple steps before being able to unsubscribe from Prime.

    Expand
  11. 11. Basket Sneaking

    The basket sneaking pattern works by placing an additional, unwanted item in a shopper's basket/cart without their knowledge while using an e-commerce site. If the user does not manually check for and remove the product, it will be unintentionally ordered.

    Most of the time, consumers may not even notice an extra product or service by the time they are ready to pay, which means more money for the business.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

But First, What Exactly Are Dark Patterns?

The term 'dark patterns', also called deceptive patterns, was coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull, a user experience (UX) consultant, when he founded a website dedicated to naming different dark patterns and exposing companies that used them.

On his page, he described deceptive patterns as "tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to, like buying or signing up for something."

However, the draft guidelines define dark patterns as "any practices or deceptive design patterns using UI/UX (user interface/user experience) interactions on any platform; designed to mislead or trick users to do something they originally did not intend or want to do; by subverting or impairing the consumer autonomy, decision making or choice; amounting to misleading advertisement or unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights."

In a study published by Northeastern University in October 2021, alarming statistics regarding the usage of dark patterns were found:

  • 95 percent of the top 240 Android apps employed deceptive patterns

  • Well over 50 percent of major websites used dark patterns

A 2021 Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) study that studied ads published by influencers on social media between 2021-22 also found that 29 percent of these ads had misleading dark patterns.

Another study conducted at MIT in 2020 found that after presenting participants with data collection requests using pop-ups from popular websites, people were anywhere from 8-23 percent likelier to consent to tracking when dark patterns were used in the notices. This proved the highly effective nature of these patterns.

Now that you know how common and manipulative deceptive patterns can be, let's look at some of the most frequently employed ones, using information we collated from Brignull's catalogue.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Confirm-Shaming

Confirm-shaming is a tactic used to pressure a user into opting for something, like sharing their contact details or subscribing to a newsletter, by making the other option seem undesirable.

Companies that confirm-shame will often word the 'deny' option in a manner that triggers emotions like guilt or shame. By targeting a user's feelings, they are more likely to do the business' bidding.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

An example of confirm-shaming. The option to opt out of providing an email address is worded in such a way that it mocks and belittles the user.

(Photo: The Quint)

0

Fake Scarcity

Fake scarcity works by making it seem like a good or service has limited availability, encouraging users to act quickly out of fear of missing out. This is achieved by displaying misleading information regarding minimal stock or high demand, effectively making the item appear more 'exclusive', when in reality, it is not.

In turn, shoppers will feel a sense of urgency to purchase the commodity and the business will get more sales.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

In this example, it is made to seem like the product is highly valued using false information regarding the item's sales and stock level.

(Photo: The Quint)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Hidden Costs

Hidden costs, also referred to as 'junk fees' or 'drip pricing', are additional fees or charges that are obscured from a consumer's view until the final step of a product's often lengthy purchase process.

These additional costs are initially omitted to make a product seem much cheaper than it really is, enticing shoppers to click on the item and buy it.

Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

In this example, we see 'service' and 'fulfilment' fees pop up just as the user is about to complete the transaction, making the final price 47% higher than advertised.

(Photo: The Quint)

Corporations using junk fees will prolong and make inconvenient the process of buying a product, usually requiring the shopper to input an email address, phone number, date of birth, and similar information.

Subsequently, when users finally reach the payment page, they continue despite the charges due to having already invested time and effort.
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Nagging

Nagging is a dark pattern that involves repeatedly asking users for the same thing, often through pop-ups or notifications that are disruptive and annoying.

In many cases, there is no way to stop it, as businesses intend to eventually break users and persuade them to agree.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

In 2018, Instagram aggressively pestered users to enable notifications repeatedly over months. Users only had the option of selecting "Not Now", which allowed Instagram to simply send the pop-up again another time.

(Photo: Twitter)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Preselection

Preselection is the practice of automatically leaving certain boxes ticked, such as consent to use your email for marketing purposes. It's done in the hope that users won't notice and manually uncheck the box.

It also takes advantage of the default effect cognitive bias: people are more likely to go with the approach already chosen for them.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

In this example, the option to receive marketing emails is already selected. Often, a user will not notice or read what they are agreeing to and proceed anyway.

(Photo: The Quint)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Disguised Ads

Disguised ads confuse users by purposefully blending the lines between real content and advertising. To increase the chance of users clicking on the ads, advertisements are frequently made to resemble interface elements, related articles, or other relevant content.

This allows websites to generate much more ad revenue by misleading consumers.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

An example of an ad disguised as a download button. This is one of the most common implementations of disguised ads, where instead of downloading the program the user wants, clicking the button redirects the user to an external link.

(Photo: The Quint)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Fake Urgency

Many websites present consumers with false time limitations, often using countdowns to place a consumer under time pressure and give them a fake sense of urgency.

Fake urgency can encourage impulsive purchases out of anxiety about missing out on a sale that wasn't actually going anywhere. This translates to more sales for businesses.
Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

This is an example of a fake countdown timer that claims a sale will end as it hits zero, prompting users to act quickly.

(Photo: The Quint)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Visual Interference

Visual interference is the act of hiding, obscuring, or disguising important information on a page when it should be displayed clearly. This is most commonly done with legal details, refund policies, or other particulars a website or app may want a user to miss.

Corporations can use small, low-contrast text or put information in places users may not expect in an attempt to conceal info from consumers.

Here's a list of 10 of the most common and harmful dark patterns existing online.

An example from 2019 is when Tesla added an e-commerce feature to their mobile app allowing users to purchase upgrades for their cars. Developers hid information about the refund policy at the bottom of the screen using barely visible text.

(Photo Courtesy: Reddit)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Roach Motel

The Roach Motel (or Subscription Trap) is a deceptive pattern where signing up for a subscription or service is straightforward, but cancelling it is very difficult.

It typically works by requiring users to call customer care to cancel, hiding the cancellation option, and making the process complex and time-consuming.

Often, users will give up trying to cancel and pay for a longer period.

In June, the US Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for using dark patterns to trick users, specifically by presenting them with several options to subscribe to Prime and making it harder for them to complete a transaction, according to a report by The Verge.

The e-commerce major was also reportedly accused by the commission of forcing subscribers to go through multiple steps before being able to unsubscribe from Prime.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Basket Sneaking

The basket sneaking pattern works by placing an additional, unwanted item in a shopper's basket/cart without their knowledge while using an e-commerce site. If the user does not manually check for and remove the product, it will be unintentionally ordered.

Most of the time, consumers may not even notice an extra product or service by the time they are ready to pay, which means more money for the business.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Flipkart    E-Commerce   Amazon 

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