The online playing field is not a fair playing field. There are huge information gaps between the user and the websites and services he works with. First, they know him very well, his preferences and habits, what he has been interested in the last few days, what things he usually buys, if what people he likes to talk to – a result of the very efficient information gathering machines operated by the major platforms, primarily Google and Meta (formerly Facebook), created in the last two decades.
More than that: equipped with psychological insights gained from decades of academic research and the collection of aggregated information about online browsing and buying habits, the companies behind large online commerce sites know how to design the user experience in a way that makes the user buy things he did not intend to buy, in quantities he did not intend to purchase and at a price he did not intend to pay . These design techniques, which take advantage of familiar patterns in human thinking and know how to direct users without them feeling that someone is pulling their nose, are called “dark patterns”.
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Instagram shopping online trade
Instagram shopping. You owe me another pink bag (photo: researchsnipers)
Over the last decade I have written about dark patterns on several occasions. Dark patterns can include moves such as automatically adding products to the shopping cart, revealing additional payment costs only at the last stage, creating a false sense of urgency (such as a clock counting down towards the end of a sale, or a message on a hotel website that there are only two rooms left at the displayed price), using confusing language ( “If you do not want to receive these updates check this box”), applying social pressure in the form of displaying messages, sometimes fake, to other users who have just purchased this product, or forcing a user to complete some action on the way to the action he wants to perform (for example, opening an account on the site to make a purchase).
Now, an extensive European Union study sheds more light on the issue and provides significant insights into the ability of users to identify and deal with them, and their physical and mental reaction to them. Not surprisingly, the study identified widespread implementation of dark patterns in 97% of the most popular websites and apps in the EU. The most common patterns are hidden information, forced choice (checking an option that is preferred by the company by default), nagging (repeated requests to perform a certain action), barriers to cancellation and mandatory registration. “The prevalence of dark patterns varies between sites,” it says. “For example, a countdown clock or time-limited messages are common on e-commerce platforms, while the use of oscillation is more common on health and fitness websites/apps.”
Snap Snapchat Shopping
Snapchat shopping. How did we know this is exactly what you want, eh? (Photo: Snapchat)
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More important insights emerge from the users’ side. The research confirms among the Sharashkis a lack of awareness among users of dark patterns, but that they perceive them as negative as soon as they recognize them. “The average user’s ability to identify these practices is quite limited, consumers accept their existence as part of the normal digital experience and have become accustomed to them,” it says.
But the most interesting part of the study is two behavioral experiments conducted to assess consumer responses to these patterns. The first is an experiment in laboratory conditions designed to examine the neurophysiological and psychological impact of three dark patterns on consumers. As part of the experiment, 120 subjects from three countries (Italy, Germany and Spain) were divided into two groups of equal size. The control group was asked to perform three online tasks on experimental sites without dark patterns and the experimental group was asked to perform the same tasks when the sites included dark patterns. Throughout the execution of the tasks, the eye movements, heart rate and skin reaction of the users were monitored.
In the first task – reserving a place at a restaurant on a reservation website – the members of the experimental group were exposed to a customized advertisement pop-up with a problematic user interface that makes it difficult to close it (the control group was shown a pop-up without customization and without closing difficulties). In the second task, the users were asked to choose sunglasses from the website of an eyeglass brand, while the members of the experimental group were shown a pop-up that prominently read “Yes, I like to save money”, and in a slightly hidden way “No, I don’t like to save money”. In the third task – registering for an online clothing store account – while the experimental group filled out the registration form, a message was displayed in one of the sections “If you do not want advertising information, check the following boxes”, and they were required to check a box next to Email and next to SMS (and if they checked, a window appeared pop-up asking them if they are sure).
Amazon Israel online trade shopping
Amazon Israel. The chef’s dish: emotional manipulation capsules in dark chicken broth (photo: amazon)
The differences between the groups were significant. Members of the experimental group completed fewer tasks or required more clicks to complete them, suffered more distractions (measured by eye movement monitoring) and their heart rate was significantly higher – possibly as a result of increased anxiety or alertness. After completing the tasks, the members of the experimental group reported higher levels of frustration. “The results of the experiment indicate that dark patterns can change the decision-making process of consumers, but based on the information received there is not enough evidence to indicate that the neurophysiological effects on consumers are significant.”
The second experiment carried out was an online experiment and 7,430 people from Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden participated in it. This experiment was designed on the basis of the laboratory experiment, and is intended to examine actual behavioral effects of dark patterns – and not just emotional and psychological reactions to them. In the experiment, the subjects were asked to choose between two options for purchasing an entertainment package: one with a uniform price for all respondents that did not include the sale of information to a third party, a second that included the sale of information and a discount that was 2.5 euros lower than the one the subject stated as the minimum discount for which he would agree to sell information. That is, the choice of the second package contradicts the declared preference of the subject T
Ram the experiment.
Amazon online commerce ecommerce parcel delivery
Packages from Amazon. I got what I ordered, not what I wanted (Photo: Shutterstock)
The choice was presented in combinations of different manipulations: time pressure (a timer counted down 30 seconds to make a decision), hidden information (part of the description of the second package was hidden), emotional manipulation (a message praising the pleasure the subject will receive if he chooses the second package), personalization and presenting only the second choice Next to the choice to receive it or exchange a package. The findings revealed that some manipulations, in particular emotional manipulation, personalization and hidden information made the subjects choose the second package contrary to their stated preference.
“The experiment also revealed that not all consumers react in the same way to these practices,” wrote the authors of the study. “Half of the participants were placed in a state of vulnerability through time pressure, while the other half were in a state of deliberate delay (they were asked to explain their choice before confirming it, cf.) – which simulates a suspicious and well-informed consumer. The result shows that vulnerable consumers are more likely to make inconsistent choices (50.89%) compared to average users (47.24%) who were exposed to dark patterns.”
The research does not reveal anything that the operators of the platforms and websites did not know. They do not incorporate dark patterns because they feel like it, but because they significantly increase their income. But for everyone else – and especially for regulators, legislators and decision makers – it provides a broad and in-depth picture of how these patterns affect us and their ability to make us make decisions we don’t want to make.
Visual search for ecommerce shopping
Online shopping. Add, add to the shopping cart, definitely add (Photo: Neiman Marcus)
Dark patterns are a real problem. This is a tool used by platforms and websites in order to manipulate users and enrich themselves at their expense, while leveraging the illiteracy of the average user and exploiting known psychological failures. It works, it is very effective, and it is likely that each of us has been affected by it in one way or another.
If regulators want to do something that will really help users, undermine the balance of power that is currently biased against them, improve their lives for the better and also manage to save them money, this is the area they should engage in, and in all seriousness. Not with unnecessary nonsense like the unification of a standard of smartphone chargers.