How companies subtly trick online users with ‘dark patterns’

An “unsubscribe” option a little too difficult to find. A little box that you click on, thinking it just takes you to the next page, but it also gives access to your data. And any number of unexpected charges that appear during checkout that were not clarified earlier in the process.

An “unsubscribe” option a little too difficult to find. A little box that you click on, thinking it just takes you to the next page, but it also gives access to your data. And any number of unexpected charges that appear during checkout that were not clarified earlier in the process.

Countless popular websites and apps, from retailers and travel services to social media companies, use so-called “dark patterns” or mildly coercive design tactics that critics say are used to manipulate people’s digital behaviors.

The term “dark models” was coined by Harry Brignull, a UK-based user experience specialist and human-computer interaction researcher. Brignull began to notice that when he pointed out to one of his clients that most test subjects felt cheated on some aspect of their website or app design, the client seemed to welcome the feedback.

“It’s always been intriguing to me as a researcher, because normally the name of the game is finding flaws and fixing them,” Brignull told CNN Business. “Now we find ‘flaws’ that the client seems to like and want to keep.”

To put it in Silicon Valley parlance, he realized it was a feature, not a bug.

Brignull started talking about this practice and soon realized he was not alone in his frustration. In 2010, he launched a website to document cases, darkpatterns.org. The site has since been renamed and now features hundreds of examples of various design steps used to trick users into doing something. In the decade-plus since Brignull launched the website, the sophistication of digital dark patterns has only grown.

These design tactics have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, including lawsuits against tech companies and proposed laws to protect consumers. But while some take a harsher look at the practice, the issue may be complicated by how dark schemes have become intertwined with the creation of digital services and even some confusion over how to define the term.

“Everyone has a different definition,” said Nir Eyal, a behavioral designer and author of the widely shared Silicon Valley book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” Eyal said he tries to help companies build healthy habits into users’ lives, but his goal is to do so through “persuasive design.”

“A dark motive uses coercion,” Eyal said. “Coercion pushes you to do things you will regret later. … Persuasion gets people to do things they want to do, things they don’t regret. Some coercive or persuasive tactics can be similar, he said, but he argued it’s important to look at what the design model is trying to get you to do.

Using “streaks”, or psychologically encouraging people to keep using a product every day to make it a habit, can seem like a distracting mechanism on a social media app, or a helpful reminder to keep learning. another language via Duolingo, says Eyal.

A Growing Push to Eliminate Dark Patterns

So far this year, several lawsuits have been filed against leading tech companies for their alleged use of dark patterns to deceive users.

In March, Karl Racine, the attorney general of Washington, DC, sued Grubhub for allegedly misleading customers about hidden fees “by bundling them with taxes at checkout,” according to a lawsuit announcement. Racine’s office added: “This practice constitutes a ‘dark pattern’.” In a statement at the time, a Grubhub spokesperson told CNN that its practices “have always complied with DC law” and noted that “many practices at issue have been discontinued.

Several attorneys general have also sued Google over its alleged use of dark patterns to trick users into providing more location data. Racine, who was also part of this costume, alleged that Google “uses tricks to constantly seek to track a user’s location”. A Google spokesperson told the Washington Post in January that the case was “based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings.”

Ring-road lawmakers in Brussels have also begun to notice bleak patterns recently. A bipartisan group of six U.S. lawmakers issued a joint statement last month in support of legislation to clamp down on dark patterns, more than a year after the bill was introduced to lawmakers. The text of the bill states that it aims to “prohibit the use of exploitative and deceptive practices by large online operators and to promote consumer welfare in the use of behavioral research by these providers.” “.

The Federal Trade Commission issued a new enforcement policy statement late last year warning companies “against deploying illegal dark schemes that mislead or trick consumers into subscription services.” The new policy statement cites three key requirements that companies must follow: clearly and prominently disclose all material terms of the product or service; obtain the express informed consent of the consumer before invoicing him; and provide an easy and simple cancellation process for consumers. The agency added that it is stepping up enforcement in response to “a growing number of complaints about financial harm caused by deceptive listing tactics, including unauthorized charges or pending billing that cannot be reversed.”

In Europe, a Norwegian consumer group filed a complaint with the country’s consumer protection agency last year, alleging that the design of Amazon’s Prime cancellation process breaches EU law. European. The Norwegian Consumer Council told authorities that canceling a subscription required scrolling through six pages and making several complex choices. In a statement at the time, the group alleged that Amazon was “manipulating consumers into staying subscribed.”

This month, the EU’s consumer protection arm announced that Amazon would change its Prime cancellation practices to comply with EU consumer rules. This includes the ability for customers to unsubscribe from Prime “with just two clicks” as well as “using a visible and clear ‘Cancel’ button”. In a public statement, Amazon said, “Transparency and customer trust are top priorities for us. By design, we make it clear and simple for customers to join or cancel their Prime membership.

Eyal says he thinks regulation is needed around dark patterns, but he said there are other ways to get companies to stop the behavior, including simply drawing attention to it. He cited Brignull’s website, for example, as a historical repository of various dark patterns over the years – many of whom quit after being called out.

“When companies are publicly shamed and chastised for using these techniques, they almost always abandon this dark pattern,” he said. For example, he said it was very common when buying a flight online for companies to use the ‘shopping cart technique’ to add flight insurance and other fees that customers wouldn’t notice. only at the time of payment.

“When people found out this was happening, they not only didn’t want to do business with these companies, but they told all their friends not to do business with these companies,” Eyal said. “So what you find is that when companies are shamed into using these dark patterns, they almost always stop.”

Brignull, for his part, said he had spent time giving evidence as an expert witness in some class actions related to dark patterns in the UK. “Scams don’t work when the victim knows what the scammer is trying to do,” Brignull said. “If they know what the scam is, they won’t get screwed – and that’s why I’ve enjoyed exposing these things so much and showing them to other consumers.”

About Mariel Baker

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