Dark Patterns and Aggressive Persuasion – 3 Reasons to Avoid!

Paul Boag

Many have argued that the use of dark patterns and aggressive persuasion in web design is unethical. But what about from a purely business perspective?

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Whether we are aware of it or not, we have all encountered dark patterns. They are user interface elements that have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do, like adding insurance to an order or signing up for reoccurring billing.

Take for example the screenshot below. Notice how there are two buttons for checkout. Notice how the more prominent green button automatically adds insurance and how the directional arrow shape seems to indicate this is how you progress. If you were not giving this page your full attention, it would be easy to miss that it was tricking you into permitting the addition of insurance.

Example of Dark Patterns
A dark pattern is a manipulative technique to encourage a certain action online.

Often dark patterns rely on the fact that we are not giving a site our full attention to slip things past us. But at other times they use manipulative techniques based on psychology to pressure us into taking the desired action. Techniques such as scarcity, social pressure or fear of missing out.

Etsy has recently adopted these techniques by highlighting the number of people who have added an item to their basket and the limited stock for that item. These user interface elements leave you feeling that if you don’t act quickly, you will miss out.

Etsy Using Dark Patterns
Etsy pressure people into making a quick purchase.

Why People Adopt Dark Patterns

Despite being widely condemned as unethical, dark patterns persist and are, if anything, growing in popularity. That is because they do, in fact, work.

As marketers and other digital specialists find themselves under increasing pressure from senior management to meet targets, it is hardly surprising that they turn to dark patterns as the answer.

What is more, in the depths of a project, I am not always convinced we are even aware that we are stumbling into the realms of dark patterns. We are so focused on our goals that we overlook the ethics of our approach or that it has consequences.

Finally, what appears unethical from one point of view can feel very different from another. Senior management teams often do not understand digital enough to see they have crossed a line.

We Do Not See the Cost of Dark Patterns

With that in mind, let’s set aside the ethics for a moment and consider the business ramifications of dark patterns instead. Because, although dark patterns do often work, they come with long-term consequences. Consequences that are not readily associated with dark patterns if you are only focusing on key performance indicators.

For example, companies who use dark patterns may notice a decline in repeat business and brand loyalty over the long term. But they might not associate that with the employment of dark patterns because there will be no apparent causal relationship.

Therefore, let me take a moment to lay out three reasons why companies should steer clear of these kinds of manipulative techniques. We start with an often overlooked fact, users are not oblivious to this manipulation.

1. Consumers Are Cynical, Savvy and Spoilt for Choice

There is a presumption that if these techniques work, then people must be unaware that the site is manipulating them. In fact, that is not always the case.

In usability testing I have observed that people are often aware, at least at some level, that they are being manipulated.

Take for example a usability test session I ran with a man called David. He was asked to book a hotel and chose to do so on booking.com. While booking his room, he commented on the site:

I hate all of this manipulative crap, trying to convince me the room is about to sell out.

He was well aware that the site was manipulating him. When I asked him why he chose to use the site anyway, he cited ease of use and claimed he just ignored all the “other stuff”.

Dark patterns on booking.com
In usability testing I found that users were well aware that booking.com was trying to pressure them into making a booking.

Of course, in truth, the “manipulative crap” was influencing his decision making on a subconscious level despite what he thought. However, it did leave him with a negative impression of the site. A feeling that was only overcome by its ease of use.

What stories like David’s show us is that consumers are a lot savvier than we think. Not only that, but they are also incredibly cynical. They expect companies to manipulate them.

The other factor to consider is that users have an extensive choice. Although David was willing to put up with the “manipulative crap” because of the site’s ease of use, often that is not the case. With your competition a click away, it is often preferable to abandon a site that seeks to manipulate and go elsewhere.

After all, what does it say about a companies attitude towards its customers if it seeks to manipulate them in this way?

But the cost of a customer being aware that a company has manipulated them is much higher than losing one customer. In today’s world, one disgruntled customer can undermine an entire brand.

2. One Disgruntled Customer Can Undermine a Brand

Many of these dark patterns and other manipulative techniques are not new. They have existed in traditional advertising for years and served the industry well. But the digital world is different because it has caused a shift in power.

In the age of mass marketing, a disgruntled customer wasn’t the end of the world. Sure, they could complain to a few friends and family, but that was about it. Their influence was insignificant compared to the power of a multi-million dollar marketing budget.

Today things are different. For a start, the average consumer has over 330 friends on Facebook alone. That is immediately a lot more than a few friends.

Second, consumers can write reviews and ratings which will reach a much broader audience, and many will rely heavily on reviews when making a purchase.

Third, the web connects disgruntled customers, and that enables them to amplify their message. For example, a single post by blogger Jeff Jarvis united consumers unhappy with Dell’s customer service. According to some reports the resulting PR nightmare was responsible for knocking a third off Dell’s share price.

But even one disgruntled customer can do considerable damage if that person is willing to put in even a bit of effort. Take for example Hasan Syed, who took out a promoted tweet complaining about British Airways customer service. That single action was picked up by both the tech blogs and mainstream media alike.

Negative publicity about British Airways
British Airways suffered a significant PR disaster because of a single disgruntled customer.

Of course, both of these examples relate to poor customer service, not dark patterns. But there are examples of that too. The dark pattern hall of shame, is full of examples of consumers calling out companies.

Uber had to address a storm of negative publicity concerning the ways it manipulated drivers into working extended hours. Then there is Facebook who the media has repeatedly accused of encouraging users to become addicted to their feeds, not to mention their experiments on manipulating people’s emotions.

Facebook apologising for dark patterns
Facebook had to apologise after intentionally manipulating its user’s emotional state.

Of course, not every company who uses manipulative techniques on their sites get called out for it on the scale of Uber or Facebook. However, even if the backlash is limited, there is still a price to manipulation, and that is buyer’s remorse.

3. Buyer’s Remorse Costs a Business Big Time

Buyer’s remorse refers to that sense of regret that you sometimes get after making a purchase. A feeling that is going to be all the more likely if a site manipulated you into making that purchase.

Buyer’s remorse does not just impact the consumer; it also costs the business. For a start, the likelihood of a repeat sale to a customer who is suffering from buyer’s remorse is much lower.

That costs a business much more than you might expect. That is because the cost of acquiring new customers is much higher than encouraging repeat purchases from existing customers.

Then, of course, there is the cost of counteracting any negative comments the customer makes online. That is a challenge made harder due to the negativity bias, which ensures we place more emphasis on negative reviews than positive.

Finally, there is the cost of handling complaints associated with unhappy clients. The average price of a customer calling a company is £3.50 and this is a cost that will quickly escalate if a site manipulated users into making purchases that they do not want.

You might be wondering why so many companies continue to use dark patterns when the cost of their use is so high. Surely, when looked at as a whole, they must provide a definite benefit to the company? Not necessarily.

The problem is that most companies rarely look holistically at the impact of their actions and dark patterns are no exception. Instead, to those implementing dark patterns, the cost of them is hidden.

For a start, the company may not associate an increase in the cost of customer acquisition with the use of dark patterns. It can also be hard to identify why the marketing budget from previous years no longer has the same impact it once did.

But there is another factor at play here, and that is the siloed nature of most organisations. A marketing or digital team implementing dark patterns may not be aware of an increase in complaints to the customer call centre, especially when they do not believe that they are implementing manipulative techniques on the site.

illustration of the hidden costs of dark patterns
Often it is departmental silos that hide the real cost of dark patterns.

Hopefully, by now, you can see that dark patterns are dangerous for long-term business health. But, ironically dark patterns aren’t even that effective when compared to other approaches.

Dark Patterns Aren’t Even the Most Effective Approach

Yes, dark patterns work. But there are more effective approaches you can take to improve conversion. Techniques built around reducing cognitive load by simplifying your site, overcoming analysis paralysis or better matching the users mental model.

As I explain in my guide to conversion rate optimisation, there is just no need to resort to these kinds of manipulative techniques.