In the expansive realm of the internet, where every click and tap is a step into an intricate digital universe, not all paths are lit with truth and transparency. Imagine walking through a beautiful garden, however, the path is cleverly twisted, pushing you towards thorny bushes instead of the scenic route. That’s a bit like what happens on the internet, where some sneaky tricks guide you down a less-than-friendly path. These devious constructs, aptly named ‘dark patterns’ are the clandestine architects of digital deception. These digital tricks are like hidden traps designed to make you click, buy, or sign up for things you might not want to. Just as shadows dance upon the walls, dark patterns in user interface design twist and turn, casting illusions that lead us astray.
What are Dark Patterns?
Unless you live under a rock, you have already faced dark patterns on the internet, even before knowing the concept. Remember when you wanted to opt out of a service and the ‘opt-out’ button was intentionally made hard to find or confusing, using a small font or placing it amidst a cluttered layout? or when a website displayed a lower initial price while viewing but when checking out, additional fees or subscriptions were automatically added, significantly increasing the price or when the homepage of a website bombarded you with multiple pop-ups, making it difficult to find the content or close the pop-ups, and ultimately pushing you to subscribe or take a specific action? These are all examples of Dark Patterns on the web.
Dark patterns refer to design techniques used in user interfaces to manipulate or deceive users into taking certain actions that may not be in their best interest. These patterns exploit psychological and behavioural traits to influence users to make decisions they might not otherwise make. These designs are often subtle and can mislead users, leading to unintended consequences. Misleading information, hidden costs, forced continuation, nudging and defaulting, difficult opt-outs, misdirecting, disguising ads between content, fake social engagement, etc. are all dark patterns that have become common these days. Dark patterns are unethical and manipulative, as they prioritize the interests of the business over the well-being and informed decisions of users. Therefore, increased transparency, regulation, and ethical design practices to combat the use of dark patterns on the internet have been asked for, for a long time.
Types of Dark Patterns
Dark patterns manifest in various forms across websites and online platforms, aiming to manipulate user behaviour. Here are some common types of dark patterns with examples of websites that have faced accusations:
Misleading User Interface – Amazon has been accused of using misleading UI elements to encourage unintentional purchases. For instance, unclear placement of the “Buy Now” and “Add to Cart” buttons can lead users to inadvertently complete a purchase.
Hidden Costs and Fees – Hidden costs involve concealing additional fees or charges until a user is well into a transaction. This lack of transparency is a tactic used to make the product or service appear more affordable than it truly is, potentially misleading users and impacting their financial decisions. Some airline and travel booking websites are notorious for hiding additional fees until the last steps of the booking process, making it challenging for users to accurately estimate the total cost of their trip.
Bait-and-Switch – The bait-and-switch tactic attracts users with an appealing offer or promise, only to redirect them to a different, often less favourable, option. Some websites promote free software downloads but redirect users to premium versions or unrelated products during the download process. The initial promise of a free product is used to bait users into engaging with the site.
Roach Motel – In the roach motel dark pattern, it’s easy for users to enter a service or sign up, but incredibly difficult or cumbersome to exit or cancel. This strategy is designed to discourage users from leaving or unsubscribing, ultimately benefiting the platform by retaining users against their will. Websites make it easy for users to sign up for a service but create obstacles when users try to cancel or unsubscribe. It often involves a convoluted process or hidden cancellation options.
Trick Questions and Sneak into Basket – Trick questions mislead users by presenting options that are confusing or designed to deceive. For instance, a checkbox with a negative statement might trick users into selecting an unintended choice, leading to unexpected outcomes such as subscribing to unwanted emails or services. E-commerce sites may use confusing language or design to trick users into unintentionally adding items to their shopping cart or subscribing to newsletters when they intend to do otherwise.
Confirm-shaming – Confirm-shaming leverages guilt or shame to coerce users into selecting a particular option. This is done by presenting the desired choice in a negative or judgmental manner, making users feel compelled to avoid the negative connotation associated with one option and choose the other.
Urgency and Scarcity Tactics – Booking platforms often display messages like “Only 1 room left!” or “20 people are looking at this” to create a false sense of urgency and pressure users into making a quick decision.
Privacy Zuckering – Facebook has been accused of using confusing language and settings to make it difficult for users to manage their privacy preferences, leading them to disclose more information than intended.
Social Proof Manipulation – Some review websites may display fake reviews or prominently feature positive reviews to create a biased perception of a product, service, or establishment.
Hidden Opt-Outs and Subscription Tactics – Websites sometimes make it difficult to find the opt-out option for newsletters or automatically subscribe users during account creation without clear consent.
Disguised Ads – Search engines sometimes blend ads with organic search results, making it challenging for users to differentiate between paid advertisements and genuine search results.
Impact of Dark Patterns
Dark patterns manipulate users into making decisions they might not have chosen if they had complete and transparent information. This can lead to regret, frustration, and a loss of trust in online platforms. Misleading pricing and hidden fees can result in users spending more money than they intended, affecting their budget and financial well-being. Moreover, dark patterns can also coerce users into sharing more personal information than they would have willingly disclosed, compromising their privacy and potentially leading to misuse of their data. Users end up spending unnecessary time trying to navigate or understand dark patterns, hindering their efficiency and overall online experience. Meanwhile, aggressive pop-ups, confirm-shaming, and other dark patterns can create negative emotional experiences, leading to feelings of annoyance, anger, or anxiety. Dark patterns also infringe upon users’ autonomy and free choice by leading them down a specific path, reducing their ability to make informed decisions based on their true preferences. Encountering dark patterns erodes trust in the website or platform. Users may become wary of engaging with similar sites in the future, impacting overall user trust in the digital landscape. Further, users may misunderstand or misinterpret information due to deceptive language or hidden agreements, leading to confusion and potential misuse of services. Therefore, understanding and raising awareness about dark patterns is crucial to empower users to recognize these manipulative tactics and make informed choices while navigating the online world. Additionally, advocating for ethical design practices helps mitigate the negative effects of dark patterns on users.
What is the Government doing about Dark Patterns?
The Department of Consumer Affairs, Government of India, is taking proactive measures to address the issue of Dark Patterns in online interfaces, aiming to protect consumer rights and ensure fair practices within the digital space. The Draft Guidelines for Prevention and Regulation of Dark Patterns have been crafted after extensive consultations with various stakeholders, including e-commerce platforms, law firms, and both government and voluntary consumer organizations (VCOs). The department initiated this process by conducting an interactive stakeholder consultation on “Dark Patterns”. This event brought together stakeholders such as the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), e-commerce platforms, legal experts, and more. During the consultation, it was unanimously agreed that Dark Patterns present a significant concern and necessitate proactive regulation and prevention.
In furtherance of these efforts, the Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs dispatched a letter to E-commerce companies, Industry Associations, and participants of the stakeholder consultation. The letter emphasized refraining from incorporating designs or patterns in the online platform interface that could deceive or manipulate consumer choice, falling under the category of dark patterns. The directive sternly advised against engaging in ‘unfair trade practices’ that violate the ‘consumer rights’ as defined by the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. Subsequently, a Task Force was established, comprising representatives from Industry Associations, ASCI, NLUs, VCOs, and key e-commerce platforms such as Google, Flipkart, RIL, Amazon, Go-MMT, Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, Tata CLiQ, Facebook, Meta, Ship Rocket, and Go-MMT. Leveraging the extensive insights from these consultations and the draft Guidelines submitted by the Task Force, the Department of Consumer Affairs has formulated the present Draft Guidelines for the prevention and regulation of dark patterns. These guidelines are now open for public consultation and will be officially issued under section 18 (2) (l) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, upon finalization.