Dark patterns - design features used by websites and apps to influence consumer behaviour - are ubiquitous. With the government starting to explore their use, we explored how aware consumers are of these patterns, and how they feel about them.
Our research found that, when shown examples, most consumers recall seeing activity messages (87% of consumers), trick questions (84%), low stock messages (75%), countdown timers (73%) and nagging (70%) on websites or apps.
Dark patterns can leave consumers feeling manipulated or annoyed (45%) and in some cases may cause financial harm - 13% of people said it had led them to spend more than they intended to.
The dark side of choice architecture
Websites and apps spend millions working out how to present choices to consumers in order to impact their decision-making. Through the use of design features such as colours, placement of options, defaults and information provided at certain moments in certain ways, they can influence consumers to take certain actions, for example to buy something, spend more than they intended or give their data away.
Sometimes this can be to the benefit of consumers, for example by helping them to quickly find a product they want. However, these design features can also be used to manipulate consumers into actions they don't necessarily want to take - known as “dark patterns”.
Dark patterns manipulate consumers into doing things that they didn't mean to do or into making a choice which favours the website or app rather than the consumer. They work on a subconscious level, exploiting consumers' cognitive vulnerabilities such as biases and limited attention.
Most consumers have seen dark patterns
We are all likely to have experienced a dark pattern whether we realise it or not - one academic study found that in a sample of trending android apps in the US 95% used dark patterns. Another study found that 1 in 10 shopping websites (in a sample of 11,000) included text-based dark patterns.
Some action has been taken to protect consumers from dark patterns where websites have provided misleading information, but these efforts have been piecemeal. Rising concern has prompted the UK government to explore the harm they cause in its consultation to reform consumer protections.
Our research finds that dark patterns are being experienced widely by UK consumers. We showed more than 2,000 online participants example images and descriptions of eight of the most common dark patterns. In all cases, half or more people recalled seeing it sometimes or regularly when using websites or apps. The most commonly remembered were activity messages and trick questions, followed by low stock messages, countdown timers and nagging.
What's the harm from dark patterns?
In manipulating people to make choices that aren’t in their best interests, dark patterns can cause a range of consumer harms. Consumers may be made financially worse off. For example, about one in eight (13%) participants in our survey recalled spending more than they intended and 6% said they accidently bought something.
Emotional harms are even more common. 45% of people told us they felt manipulated or annoyed as a result of experiencing dark patterns. In addition there may be harm via an invasion of privacy. In separate research, Which? found that consumers had strong feelings about their data being collected by platforms and can feel that their privacy is invaded by some methods.
The use of dark patterns can backfire for some businesses. For example, a quarter (24%) of consumers have thought negatively of an organisation using dark patterns and 16% say they have stopped using a website and or app (either temporarily or permanently) due to their use of dark patterns. They can also lead to businesses being perceived as less trustworthy. 15% of consumers say that they have had their trust in an organisation undermined due to their use of dark patterns.
Most online consumers will have experienced a dark pattern on a website or app, potentially causing financial and or emotional harm to them. However, there have been limited efforts to protect consumers from dark patterns. The inclusion of it in the government’s consultation for reforming competition and consumer policy will hopefully prove to be a step towards society determining what constitutes the fair design of websites.
The fieldwork was conducted by Yonder on behalf of Which between 20th and 22nd August 2021. A nationally representative sample of 2,078 consumers was surveyed.
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