Dark Patterns in E-commerce
Dark Patterns in E-commerce

Dark Patterns in E-commerce: How Online Stores Trick you

Retail therapy is the best way to recover when you are feeling blue. And what is better than online shopping when you are lounging at your home scrolling through your phone and looking for that perfect dress for the weekend party?

But when you are buying the sneakers or the dress, you will find yourself buying more than you actually intended to. You’ll soon start questioning if you really need those shoes and that belt. And then you are going to question if you are being too impulsive with your money.

Now, we can’t exactly tell you whether you are being frivolous with your spending. But we can tell you why you ended up buying all those products when you really didn’t need them. The reason is the implementation of dark patterns on eCommerce platforms.

Commerce in general, and eCommerce specifically, work on principles of fairness. Provide a useful product and receive fair value in return. Content marketing works the same way. Provide helpful/actionable content and you receive traffic, brand loyalty, and conversions for your troubles. Dark UX does the exact opposite. It can be defined as deceiving your visitors into providing you with a value that you have neither earned nor deserve.

In this article, we are going to talk about all kinds of dark patterns used by the eCommerce platforms. But before that, let’s learn in detail what a dark pattern in eCommerce is.

Anti-Patterns

There are many online stores out there that do not plan to deceive their customers but simply have poor UX optimization

Before we get started it’s important that we make a distinction between patterns that are intentionally deceitful (dark patterns) and those that are erroneously irritating (anti-patterns).

The former are ethically unconscionable, while the latter are just lazy and unprofessional.

Examples of anti-patterns are as follows:

  • Seemingly clickable elements that are, in fact, unclickable, sometimes called a “tease
  • Crowded content cluttering all the space above the fold
  • Automatically erasing form info due to an error upon submission
  • The “door slam”, in which you follow an external link that results in an app download banner covering the content you were looking for

Example of a “door slam”:

Door Slam
Door Slam

Dark Pattern: What It Is And What It Means?

According to the website dedicated to exploring dark patterns within the eCommerce industry, it is tricks used in the online stores to have the users perform actions they didn’t intend to.

These actions can range from simply signing up for a newsletter without having any idea of paying for something extra during shopping.

Right now there are hundreds of dark patterns used by eCommerce websites. Even the simplest of the element on the website can be a manipulative trick to make the buyer make a purchase they don’t want to.

And that’s why whether you are a buyer or an eCommerce business owner, you need to learn about these dark patterns. For the buyers, it will help to avoid these tricks and save a lot of hassle. And for the eCommerce business owners, it will save them from becoming seedy online stores that betray their customers.

The most popular dark pattern used by the eCommerce websites today is something we are all very familiar with. And it is because we have all encountered these while surfing the web. What are these tricks?

Let’s have a look:

#1. Shamed For Our Choices A.k.a Confirm Shaming

At some point in our life, we are all shamed for our choices. But when it comes from a website, it kind of stings.

Many websites, whether it is an online store or an online magazine website, we have all been confronted with something like this-

Source

It’s a simple trick. They will ask you to make a purchase or subscribe to their newsletter. They will also give you two options, first to comply and buy into whatever they are selling, second is to opt-out of the purchase. The problem with this scenario is the language of the opt-out option.

While for many websites a simple yes and no is sufficient, for many others, it is not enough. They make the differences between the two options striking by using striking languages.

Like the above example where the confirmation option is highlighted with the word “Obviously” but the opt-out option is labelled as “I’m Boring” which is an obvious use of confirm-shaming tactics. Of course, no one wants to admit that they are boring, and that’s why they are going to subscribe to the newsletter.

However, this kind of psychological trick may not work on the users today, but it is indeed annoying to see. The users on any platform do not appreciate being shamed for the choices they are going to make and definitely do not like to be shamed into doing anything for them.

Using such tricks is going to make for bad UX. So if you are an owner of an eCommerce platform then make sure that you don’t end up shaming the customers for whatever choice they are making.

#2. The Undesirable Outcome Of Common Actions

The bait and switch action has been in use for a long time now. It’s a basic and common dark pattern used by the eCommerce websites. It is when a user performs a perfectly common action, hoping for a perfectly common result, but is surprised with a completely different outcome than what was expected.

2.1 Windows 10 Upgrade

Let’s take this Windows 10 upgrade example. Usually clicking on the cross sign on the top right corner of a window closes it. But in this case, it initialized the update.

Source

It is not only a misguided process but an incredibly annoying one for the users. When they perform a common action, they expect the common result from it.

However, breaking that pattern will make them lose that trust. And that’s why keeping up with the known pattern of actions and results is going to do you a lot better than hiding surprises from the users.

This wouldn’t have been near as big a problem had Windows just made a more concentrated effort at marketing the benefits of upgrading rather than forcing the upgrades upon their users. An alternative to bait and switch tactics could be a simple cross-sell strategy, or a suggested item menu that pops up once a user is finished with their desired content. The ideal strategy is always honesty.

Provide content that provides value to users and then ask for a favour in return. Here at Monetize.info, we are offering free eBooks in exchange for an email address.

#3. Forcing The Users To Continue

This type of dark pattern occurs when someone signs up for a “free” trial but is required to share credit card information during the intake process. Then, when the trial period ends, their credit card is charged without warning.

This dark pattern is used by many subscription-based services to force the user to continue with the subscription. In most cases, signing up for such services is quite simple. But signing out of it is not as simple. The user will have to either call the customer care service to manually unsubscribe or send emails. Meanwhile, they will keep receiving unwanted emails and notifications.

3.1 Cancel a subscription on The Economist

For example, the financial news magazine – The Economist allows you to purchase a subscription easily with your credit card but if you want to cancel you can not do it automatically from your member’s panel.

Instead, you have to call their support line or fill a form and email it.

Cancel your subscription of The Economist
Cancel your subscription of The Economist

#4. Hidden Costs

It is nice when you visit an eCommerce website, find an item that you love and see what the price is incredibly affordable. However, when you add that item to the cart and finally check out, you will see that you have to pay a lot more than what you initially thought.

4.1 Pro-Choice Flower service

Let’s take the example of Pro-Choice Flower service. The offering price is at the beginning very affordable. But after going through the 6 steps check out process, the price goes up.

In this case, the initial pricing is not inclusive of the various taxes. Later during the checkout, the platform is going to add up all the taxes and present the users with a higher price than they are willing to pay. And since the user has already gone through so many steps to check out, they are going to make the purchase, however reluctantly.

Source

4.2 Pro-Choice Flower service

The subtotal for flowers on the 1-800-Flowers’ website was $54.99 when the item was added to the cart. The second image shows that the user would actually end up paying $83.94.

Source

With this trick, the eCommerce platforms might be able to drive sales once or twice, but it will surely destroy the chances of getting any repeat customers.

#5. Displaying The Countdown Timer

We have all visited an eCommerce website, looked at a product on sale and made a lightning-fast purchase, all because there was a time limit to that sale.

However, more often than not, these sale timers are not exactly accurate, and they are only there to make you force into making a purchase right there and then.

5.1 Amazon Countdown timer

Source

5.2 JustFab

JustFab advertises a false offer “purchase 2 for $29.95” that last only one hour which is not true as the timer gets back to start if you re-enter on the website.

Source

Creating a false sense of urgency, these companies try to take advantage of the user’s fear of missing out. In most cases, these sales last a lot longer than the duration indicated by the clock.

#6. Only Few Left

Similar to the above countdown timer trick, the stock limit declaration is also another dark pattern used by the eCommerce platforms to sell things fast.

More often we encounter products with the description that only a handful are left. While this might seem probable to us, the reality is something else entirely.

Source

Once again by creating this sense of scarcity, the platforms want users to make quick purchases without thinking about anything else. These practices are not for the benefit of the users, rather the benefit of the business.

#7. Someone Already Bought It, And Saved A Ton!

When shopping you have probably seen notifications such as “Jennifer for Jacksonville, Phoenix bought this dress and saved $55”. And it probably made you think that it will be a good idea to buy the same dress as Jennifer from Jacksonville.

However, Jennifer from Jacksonville is not real. These notifications are generated only to convince users that a certain purchase is going to benefit them. And the best way to do this is making them believe that a real person is benefitting from the same purchase.

This way eCommerce platforms compel users into making a purchase or subscribing for a service that might not be all that useful to them.

#8. Fake Testimonials

Last but not least, we come to fake testimonials. There are a lot of us who look at the testimonials before making a purchase or subscribing to a service. But what happens when the reviews and testimonials are actually fake?

Source

There are many eCommerce platforms and many companies that use fake testimonials and reviews to upsell their products. They use bot-generated reviews to make their product appear 100% reliable and trustable. The truth is only revealed when the user finally makes the purchase and realizes that those reviews were in fact fake.

#9. The Road Block

This pattern occurs when an interaction is interrupted by an element that appears instead of the content you were trying to view. The obvious example here is a popup, but you can also be redirected to different screens entirely. Another example you might run into fairly often is a paywall for a scholarly article or news story.

This isn’t exactly a dark pattern for journalism sites since many have decided to make the roadblock an official part of their business model. However, it is irritating, it does disrupt UX, and it’s not at all clear how many users will tolerate it enough to actually open their wallets for what’s, essentially, authoritative, credible, well-researched and well-written blogging.

9.1 The WallStreet Journal Paywall

WallStreet Journal paywall example
WallStreet Journal paywall example

In fact, an oft-cited study by Lesley Chiou and Catherine Tucker asserts that online news outlets often see a 51% decrease in overall visits after introducing a paywall.

Why Ecommerce Platforms Use Dark Patterns

It is definitely tough to drive sales on the eCommerce website,  mainly due to the huge competition. And perhaps that’s why the eCommerce platform owners are compelled to use such manipulative tricks to convince the users to make their purchases. However, these practices ultimately ruin the reputation of their platform.

According to ZDNet, we should expect these UI dark patterns to become even more popular in the coming years.

One reason, they said, is that there are third-party companies that currently offer dark patterns as a turnkey solution, either in the form of store extensions and plugins or on-demand store customization services.

The table below contains the list of 22 third-parties that the research team identified following their study as providers of turnkey solutions for dark pattern-like behaviour.

Providers of turnkey solutions for dark pattern-like behaviour
Providers of turnkey solutions for dark pattern-like behaviour

Our Advice on Dark Patterns

For e-commerce owners

Even if dark patterns may seem will increase your shop revenue or may even be presented as growth hacking tips by your digital marketing team I suggest you stay away from them. That’s because it will make more harm than good in the long run.

As I said in the short term it will increase your revenue but will frustrate your customers which as soon as will find other shops that treat them right will leave you without looking behind. And in a competitive e-commerce landscape like we have today you definitely don’t want that.

You gain goodwill by being honest. Sneaky tactics will only result in hurt feelings and lower lifetime value (LTV) for each customer.

To actually drive better sales and get repeated customers, the main aim of any eCommerce platform should be to be completely honest, transparent, and straightforward about their business policy. Otherwise, it will be hard for users to trust the platform and do any kind of business with it.

For customers

There are two important things you should keep in mind when doing shopping that will help you not fall for dark patterns in e-commerce. One is to keep your calm and doesn’t purchase impulsively and the second is to pay attention to every step of the purchase.

Happy shopping everyone.

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About Mintu Mondal

I am a digital marketer.

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