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How Dark Patterns Change Our Behavior

Websites are working harder than ever to influence our decisions—and even if you know what they’re up to, you can still find yourself adjusting your actions in exactly the way the site wants.

As Fast Company reports:

Researchers at Princeton University recently built a bot that simulates the way a user might browse a shopping site, while scraping all the text and styling information from each page. They then analyzed whether there were any dark patterns present. Of the 11,000 websites they browsed, they found a total of 1,841 instances of dark patterns on 1,267 sites that range from confirm-shaming to messages that pressure shoppers into making a purchase, by saying an offer will only be available for a limited time. Some sites even added more products to a user’s cart without asking them first.

Visiting a travel website that urges you to book your flight or hotel while the price is still available isn’t quite as insidious as, say, funneling taxpayers away from the free tax filing they’re entitled to. (If you haven’t heard the Reply All podcast episode where they discuss TurboTax dark patterns with ProPublica, go add it to your podcast queue.)

In fact, corporations have been using these kinds of manipulative sales tactics long before the internet; ads, commercials, and storefront displays have always used phrases like “limited time offer,” and when I worked as a telemarketer after college because it was the only job I could find, I was specifically instructed to tell customers that the orchestra seats I was selling were the last ones in their price group—even though that was rarely the case.

But the internet, as it tends to do, has made everything a little more interesting.

Here’s an example of an extremely common dark pattern in action:

Illustration for article titled How Dark Patterns Change Our Behavior
Screenshot: Nicole Dieker

Before Barnes & Noble lets you view its site, you have to deal with a full-screen popup that asks you to make a choice: “Get 15% off” or “I’ll pass.” B&N wants you to choose the brighter, more visible option—the one that requires you to give them your email in exchange for the discount—and closing the popup requires you to both decide and affirm that you don’t want 15% off.

(Yes, you can also close the popup via the X in the upper-right corner, but I bet you didn’t notice that X until I pointed it out.)

A lot of us are so accustomed to these kinds of dark patterns that we have no problem choosing “I’ll pass” or “No, I don’t care about the environment” or whatever shame-inducing negative sentence the site forces us to select before we can see whatever it was we were searching for in the first place.

However, these dark patterns are still around because they work. Maybe the person visiting B&N is one of the “lucky 10,000” who are encountering that kind of popup for the first time. Maybe some people feel so uncomfortable at the thought of telling a website that they aren’t interested in saving money (or clear skin, or human rights, or whatever it is) that they hand over their email in exchange for a clear conscience. Maybe they simply select the brighter button out of reflex, tapping whatever is most visible in order to get the popup to go away.

Here’s another dark pattern, this time designed to part you from your money instead of your email:

Illustration for article titled How Dark Patterns Change Our Behavior
Screenshot: Nicole Dieker

What’s wrong with this picture? For starters, the insurance company is recommending its own insurance. I literally did a double-take on this one; I was buying tickets for an upcoming convention (FinCon, if you’re curious), saw the words “recommended by” and assumed the insurance was recommended by the organization running the convention.

Nope. The only organization recommending that you purchase this insurance is the organization selling the insurance.

Also, you have to select “decline protection” before you can purchase your event tickets—another dark pattern some users may not be able to overcome. (Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the protection? What if you get called for jury duty?)

A recent study by Trinity McQueen indicates that many consumers are aware of what’s going on. As TrinityMcQueen co-founder Simon Shaw explains in Behavioral Scientist:

Two thirds of the British public (65 percent) interpreted examples of scarcity and social proof claims used by hotel booking websites as sales pressure. Half said they were likely to distrust the company as a result of seeing them (49 percent). Just one in six (16 percent) said they believed the claims.

However, just because we know what’s going on doesn’t mean it isn’t influencing our decisions. When I bought my flights for FinCon, for example, the airline told me there were only two seats left at that price—and although I doubted whether that was really the case, I made the purchase immediately.

Which, if you need a plane ticket and you like the price, isn’t a terrible decision to make. But if you’re thinking about buying something less essential, ask yourself whether you really need to make the decision that quickly—especially if the website is urging you to do so. To quote Fast Company again:

Sometimes the messages reflect real availability, but not always. Acar pointed to an instance of a five-minute countdown time aimed at pushing people to buy faster that would simply reset when the clock ran out. Similarly, at the resale e-commerce site ThredUp, the New York Times reports that messages will appear on a shopper’s screen to tell them that “Alexandra from Anaheim just saved $222 on her order”—even though Alexandra doesn’t actually exist, and all the information was pulled from an arbitrary set of names, locations, and items.

What are some of the most interesting—or most insidious—dark patterns you’ve seen recently? Are you able to ignore them, or do they end up prompting you to sign up for the newsletter, make the purchase, or exchange your email for whatever coupon they’re offering?

And once we’ve all become inured to this current set of dark patterns, what do you think they’ll think of next?

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