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Web Development After 18+ Years (Part 1): Don’t Make Dark Patterns

By: Taru M. Taru M.
18 Jun, 2021

In Web Development 2000+ websites in 18+ years. Or 50 websites each year. Or roughly two websites in a week.

So, every website our eCommerce development company has ever developed has a hope against hope to succeed in an increasingly competitive and noisy online business world.

When the biggest names in business have no problems giving up even the pretence of not being ‘evil’, it is not surprising that more websites are using dark patterns, which are dirty tricks to make the users do things you want them to do.

But you may have expected this to be just one more self-important article to our ‘learnings’ in eCommerce website development services as well as web marketing.

We have some learnings but leave that for another.

Therefore, for now, We hope to draw our attention to some questionable business practices more and more website owners are using to get business.

Moreover, we know some of our clients may feel a little chagrined, but We will not be naming names, and besides, the dark patterns have become the industry practice. eCommerce website development companies not doing the client’s requests risk losing the business.

The whole internet business has long been at the crossroads of idealism and capitalism.

Table of Contents

1. A Dark Story Starts

2. The Dark Pattern Situation Now in Web Development

3. Standard Dark Pattern Practices by eCommerce Sites in Web Development

4. Big Internet Brands using Dark Patterns

5. Governments vs Dark Patterns in Web Development

1. A Dark Story Starts

Dark Pattern Practices in eCommerce Websites

UI expert Harry Brignull coined the term ‘Dark Pattern’ in 2010. back then, Brignull identified many types of dark patterns, each with unique names, including:

“Roach motel”: When a user signs up for service quickly but has a difficult time cancelling.

“Price comparison prevention”: When eCommerce websites make comparing the prices of two products difficult.

So we were reminded of that description of web design that an eCommerce website development company might put as a glorified making and positioning of coloured boxes across the screen.

2. The Dark Pattern Situation Now in Web Development

In 2019, researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago examined 53,000 product pages on 11,000 websites and found that about one in 10 eCommerce websites employs ‘dark patterns’.

Source: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1907.07032.pdf

 3. Standard Dark Pattern Practices that the Researchers Identified in Web Development?

Common Dark pattern practices by eCommerce Websites

First, read below and you will discover that we have personally experienced these on many eCommerce websites.

  • Sneaking Items or Charges into Shopping Carts

eCommerce Website Development Company

Somehow websites were sneaking additional products into shopping carts without users’ consent. Other websites added in previously undisclosed charges moments before doing the checkout.

Moreover, extra charges examples include “service fees” or “handling costs.” The researchers explained this as exploiting the user’s ‘sunk cost fallacy cognitive bias’.

Users are likely to feel so invested in the process that they justify the extra charges by finishing their purchase, not to waste their effort.

  • Signing Shoppers Up for a “Hidden Subscription”Dark Patterns | Hidden subscription Charges

As a result, some eCommerce websites charged users a recurring fee under the guise of a one-time fee or free trial, the study found. Buyers often become aware of hidden subscriptions only after they have already charged.

  • Using Deceptive Deal/Discount Countdown Timers and Limited-Time Messages

affordable ecommerce website development

Often these timers reset after a timeout, or the deals remained valid even after the timer reset.

Moreover, websites also used other messaging to warn users that a deal would expire without specifying a deadline.

So these timers create an aura of intense activity on the website and induce a FOMO (Fear of Missing out) feeling in shoppers.

  • Activity Messages and Testimonials

ecommerce website development process

However, many eCommerce websites show shoppers examples of real-time activity on their websites, such as the number of recent purchases done or views of a specific product.

Even many of these kinds of websites use tools like random number generators, which create great numbers.

Moreover, you will find customer testimonials with unclear origins.

Read Here are some tips for eCommerce Store development for your Business and make sure the testimonials you add on your online store are real and come straight from your customers. Becuase you know what customers love the most is the Brands to keep it real!

  • Messages are Indicating Low Stock or High Demand.

elearning ecommerce

So again, random number generators show fanciful inventory numbers, which will decrease according to a set schedule.

Moreover, what we have learned as eCommerce website development solutions providers from all these years is that all the businesses who ask us to help their customers to dupe them with such witty tricks never find the loyalty of their customers.

  •  Misdirection

However, websites ask users trick questions; practice “pressured selling,” or pressure a buyer to choose more expensive items; and (this is my favourite peeve) “confirm shaming,” or shepherding users away from choosing by using prompts like “Yes! I’d like the discount” and “No thanks, I like full price.”

  •  Obstruction

In other words, most eCommerce websites now make it easy for users to sign up for something, but that is difficult to cancel.

So one of the most common dark pattern practices you will have come across is discovering that cancelling a subscription is frustratingly difficult.

  •  Forced Enrolment

Somehow, we know that asking users to register before they cannot add items to the shopping cart doesn’t work.

Website owners know this as basic hygiene by now. But still, many websites force shoppers to create accounts or share information before completing a task.

So, one of the most common dark pattern tricks is to get the user to click on the big-ass button on the screen, all because the website/app wants to “use your app and website activity” or to “provide a better ads experience.” I am looking at you, Instagram.

Some other common hateful dark patterns include:

  •  Harmful Trials

Firstly, the online trial service you signed up for automatically charges you when the trial expires.

Secondly, any eCommerce development company with basic knowledge of eLearning and eCommerce can do it with a few eCommerce website development tools.

  •  Deliberately Xtra Small Buttons

And this makes it difficult for you to find and click the “X” on the top right-hand corner of that annoying interstitial ad in the app.

Moreover, the worst kinds have the “X” so small that you accidentally click on adv. itself and are redirected to the ad’s website!

As a result, a variant of this is the big pop-up window urging you to sign up for yet another website’s newsletter with a big red “Sign Me Up” button, but the opt-out button is much smaller and will have some passive-aggressive statement like ‘No, I don’t want good advice.

4. Big Internet Brands have been using Dark Patterns All Along

However, the business model of the big online brands is based on monetising user behaviour and information.

Case A: Google’s Dark Pattern Usage in web development

Dark Patterns in Google ads

Google has had a corporate code of conduct since 2000, and the young company sold us on its ‘Don’t be evil’ tagline.

However, billions have to be made on a continual basis. The hypocrisy of the slogan was starting to show as Google tightened its grip on the online search and advertising market.

In 2015, Google (company) changed its name to Alphabet. In 2018, the ‘don’t be evil’ line from its code of conduct was gone and in its place arose ‘do the right thing’.

Moreover, the hypocrisy seemed less offending, although I am unsure how Spike Lee feels about this misappropriation of a good name.

Just do the right thing by the shareholders is what Google’s new tagline seems to be honestly suggesting.

A big example of Google’s dark pattern is how its once famously minimal (but beneficial) search result pages contain less and less useful information and more and more ads.

Even the distinction between what is ad and search result is getting less legible with every design iteration of the search result pages.

That’s not all; in 2018, associated Press investigation found that when you disable Location History on your smartphone, it did not stop Google from collecting your location

Case B: Bing and Dark Patterns in web development

Bing and it's usage in dark patterns for web development

However, bing search is even more opaque. And with our learning an eCommerce website development company has to work totally differently for Bing search engine than for Google. It hinders the ‘Ad’ disclosure under the header, with only a faint outline to draw attention.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/blurred-lines-closed-loops-google-search/

Case C: Amazon’s Dark Patterns

Amazon dark pattern practices for web development

Amazon Prime.

It is the trickiest.  An eCommerce development company can help you get an eCommerce store like Amazon easily. But Amazon has something extra when it comes to dark patterns practises that no other organization does.

Amazon became infamous for the long processes and steps it took users to cancel their Amazon Prime subscription.

In 2018, the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) did a study and disclosed the difficulty Amazon users faced who decided to leave after the free trial was over.

Moreover, Amazon went to great lengths with its ‘smart’ web design methods to force users to let go of their need to cancel Prime subscriptions. According to the council’s study, Amazon’s tricks included:

– Complicated Navigation Menus
– Skewed Wording
– Confusing Choices, and
– Repeated Nudging

However, users could not even quickly find the option to cancel. When you finally got to the ‘cancel’ button after multiple clicks, Amazon ‘warns’ you about all the benefits you would be losing.

This technique has a name. It is called ‘confirm shaming.’

Another example of Amazon Prime’s dark patterns was given by a Reddit user who writes that the moment he opened the Amazon app, it used dark patterns to try to trick them into accidentally signing up for prime.

Reference: https://www.reddit.com/r/assholedesign/comments/9g2wq5/the_moment_i_open_the_amazon_app_it_uses_dark/

Amazon Shopping and Sneaky Selections

However, eCommerce websites copy Amazon features by default. One such dark pattern tactic is getting shoppers to reach a total price limit before they can avail of the free shipping feature.

Moreover, when shoppers, having fulfilled Amazon’s absolute price requirement for free shipping, go to check out, Amazon makes the paid shipping option the default selection.

Many times, this paid shipping option has estimated delivery dates that are around the free shipping dates.

Amazon probably hopes shoppers will prefer the paid option in these situations. I think many shoppers do. Otherwise, Amazon would have removed this dark pattern.

Case D: Facebook’s Fake Notifications

Facebook Fake notifications - Dark Pattern in web development

Facebook is not only a compulsive privacy intruder.

Moreover, it is a gold medallist at using many types of fake notifications to drive users to its service.

You will see Facebook notification dots next to links even when there is no legitimate new activity.

You will find these notification dots do not go away after you have clicked on the links in other cases. That’s not all.

Facebook will send emails to you suggesting there is an activity that you should log in to see. Facebook wants to keep the user sucked into the habit loop of not missing out on anything.

Fake notifications ultimately reduce the level of importance you give to information from Facebook.

I think Facebook knows this but doesn’t care anymore.

Case E: Airbnb and Price Comparison Prevention

Dark Patter - Airbnb and Price Comparison Prevention for web development

Meanwhile, Airbnb makes sure you cannot make a beneficial price comparison for rates.

For example, when you filter rates by price, Airbnb does not factor in additional fees. However, the Airbnb daily rate excludes other amounts, including cleaning fees and Airbnb’s service fee.

5. Governments vs Dark Patterns in Web Development

Moreover, websites using dark patterns have reached a tipping point of sorts, and governments have started to take an interest in shady website practices.

Starting in March 2021, California in the United States is banning companies from using ‘dark patterns in its evolving privacy laws, a sneaky website design that makes things like

BUT: Capitalism (and Clients) Will Win in web development

For instance, if it comes down to greed eventually. Websites want business – users can be managed, and government rules can be negotiated around. There is always the following trick to try out.

The dark patterns I mentioned above are only a sampling.

Moreover, clients come to us wanting to copy that latest’ trick’ that big brand uses.

If the big ones are doing it, why can’t we?

So, after 18+ years of developing 2000+ websites for clients, where do I find myself and my eCommerce Website Development Company?

However, we are still here. That means we can justify everything we do. It is the job, not us, is our reasoning.

The client is correct. The client is wrong.

Do your job and move on.

That is website development. We make shiny coloured buttons and move them around the screen that why we are a ‘buttons and links’ generation.

Editors’ note: This article is part of a series on the trends shaping the web development industry. You can find all the themes of this series in the links given below:

Part 2: https://netmaxims.com/blog/learning-in-website-development-in-18-years-seven-lessons-in-ecommerce-web-development-part-2/

Part 3: https://netmaxims.com/blog/learning-in-website-development-in-18-years-10-secrets-of-a-well-performing-website-part-3/

Taru M. Author
Taru M.

For over 18 years, Taru M. is a successful technology entrepreneur by profession and a tech enthusiast by spirit. She takes pride in offering expertise in her domain to business people's success across the globe. As a business woman and technology expert, she manages to keep her balance along with her family responsibilities. She did her masters in computers, and her work delivery shows the expertise of her education. Connect with her via Linkedin profile to know more about her exciting personality

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