Computer program coding on screen
What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns – a term that’s recently emerged in the digital lexicon – are methods employed by websites to trick you into doing something you aren’t aware of doing. This usually involves opting-in to services that you didn’t pay attention to or creating a terrible user experience that dissuades you from leaving or deactivating a service.

Now, dark patterns aren’t necessarily malicious in intent. Some, like this ad for Chatmost, has been made to look like there’s a speck of dust on it to make you tap the screen so that you click on the ad and are taken to that website. While frustrating, it’s easy to get out of that one. There are others, however, that come with a cost, usually a financial one. In this example, UK-based electronics store Comet – now defunct – would sneak in an iPad case into your basket if you bought an iPad. If you didn’t pay close attention, you would assume the iPad case is free, but in reality, it incurs extra cost. This way, they trick you into making a purchase that you didn’t intend to, and the chances of you returning the item is low, as the process is frustrating and taxing. Unlike bad website design, dark patterns are carefully crafted to trick the user. It draws from human psychology and works to profit the company rather than the customer.

PC: Cory Doctorow on Twitter

Dark patterns can be found all over the internet and user experience (UX) designer Harry Brignull is on a quest to expose them. He coined the term in order to make people more aware of them and to ‘name and shame’ them. He even has a website dedicated to dark patterns and the various companies that use them.

What does it have to do with marketing?

Marketing is a space where the difference between ethical and unethical is easily blurred. What can be regarded as right or wrong is purely subjective, which means marketing has guidelines instead of steadfast rules. Unethical practices are not uncommon in the marketing industry, and as long as they’re not outright harmful to the consumer, they aren’t really illegal, either.

The aim of effective marketing is to draw more customers to engage in a company’s services. Good and ethical marketing – one that’s done without any unnecessary trickery – can elevate the company’s name and secure a more stable customer base. If people know that the company or website that they’re buying from has a good reputation and is transparent with transactions, then they will be more inclined to stay.

However, if a company employs dubious means to secure its customer base, chances are, someone is going to take notice and the repercussions from this could result in a huge loss for the company. LinkedIn faced a $13 million lawsuit in 2015 for sending out emails to contacts that they had taken from their users without their knowledge and crafting those emails so that they looked like the users sent it themselves.

Businesses are built to promote their services and make sure that they have a steady inflow of consumers coming in. The way to ensure this happens on a regular basis depends largly on their marketing strategy, and based on the morality of these businesses, these strategies can be either positive or negative.

Let’s take a look at Amazon.

You’d think a massive business like Amazon, which, without a doubt has a large customer base, would not need dark patterns to retain its customers. No, it’s not an unknown cost in your checkout menu. No, they aren’t tricking you into signing up for Prime. None of the more common dark patterns are the problem with this website. The problem only arises when Amazon is no longer of use to you anymore and you want to deactivate your account.

Except . . . how do you do that?

In this wonderful video by nerdwriter1. he goes on to describe just how complicated it is to deactivate your Amazon account. By making you jump through hoops, Amazon is doing its best to discourage you from leaving it. Having to navigate through so many pages and then finally having to appeal to customer service is frustrating and just not worth the effort. So why go through all that trouble when you can just stay on in their website and benefit from the thousands of products they sell?

You NEED to buy this NOW!

Have you ever been to a hotel site that claims that two other people are looking at this room right now? Or that three other people also have this same item in their cart at this very moment?

Building urgency is an effective marketing tactic for websites to force you to make a decision. By highlighting what the customer doesn’t yet have and giving it an underlying sense of urgency, they’re making the user feel as if they’re going to lose out on something important if they don’t act fast.

The ethical issues that come up with regard to dark patterns are only just being unfurled. Before the internet, blatantly obscene or wrongful advertising was what we had to deal with, but with shopping and data management becoming so easy online, there are whole new problems to unpack. Sites still employ dark patterns to trick their customers, even though it isn’t necessary. Earning the trust and respect of customers goes a long way further than a frustrating user experience.

With people like Harry Brignull actively fighting against this rising tide of dark patterns, the internet space is becoming more and more aware of these questionable marketing tactics. The only way to ward against dark patterns is to be aware of them. Brignull’s twitter account runs dark patterns found by people all around the world, exposing them and making others aware of what to look out for.

Whether employing dark patterns is deemed ethical or not by a company, one thing is for sure: in the long run, it’s not going to pay off.

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