You visit a booking website to snap up a couple of tickets for an event; while you’re dithering over the price, you spot a notification telling you there are only two left. Naturally, you snap them up while you have the chance.
Meanwhile, your friend, who’s searching for six tickets for the same event, is told that there are six to be had – and also adds these to her basket as fast as she can.
The website is using a shadowy technique called “dark UX”. Retailers can use web design or user experience to manipulate user psychology and get the result they want, parting you from your cash. Another example is the way Amazon tries to get you to sign up for its Prime service at checkout by making it hard to spot other payment options.
Meanwhile, computer game Candy Crush was called out a couple of years ago for the way it manipulated players into spending more. Throughout the game, players hit a big button in the centre of the screen to start a new game, a new level, or to try again. And when an identical button appears offering in-app purchases, players just tend to carry on hitting it.
These techniques are all based on an understanding of behavioural psychology.
Fun and games
"Habit formation requires three components: a cue or context in which the habit is performed, such as the webpage or the button; the target behaviour to form as habitual – the click – and the inclusion of a reward component – the fun from the game – to reinforce the target behaviour after it is performed," says Dr Ivo Vlaev, professor of behavioural science at Warwick University. "These three factors form what is known as the 'habit-loop': a cycle that itself reinforces and maintains the habitual behaviour.
“To break the habit loop, we need to change the cue or context that triggers the routine action. For example, change the interface and suddenly people recognise the novelty, which prompts more reflective thinking."
Independent UX consultant Harry Brignull has compiled a “hall of shame” of dark UX patterns, some of which are truly inventive, like the mobile ad that appears to have a smudge of dirt on it. This encourages users to try and wipe it off their phone screen, inadvertently clicking through to a shopping site.
The aim isn’t always to part you from your money; sometimes, it’s your personal data they’re after. If you’ve signed in to Facebook in 2018, for example, you may have been presented with a message asking you to agree to targeted advertising and facial recognition. Allowing Facebook to use your data simply required you to hit a big blue button saying “I agree”; you didn't even need to read to the end of the page to do it.
If not happy with your data being used, though, you had to pick a tiny grey button. And rather than offering you a chance to refuse to share your data then and there, this button suggests you “see your options”. Even if you do this, you have to get through another screen on which Facebook tries to convince you you're making the wrong decision in opting out.
And in one example uncovered by researchers at Purdue University, dark UX is even used to make drivers for the ride-sharing app Uber work harder. "When a driver attempts to stop for the day, the app prompts them to continue in order to reach an arbitrary goal for the day," they write.
“This interruption takes advantage of a person’s natural tendency to 'income target', or set an income goal for the day, and makes the driver more likely to continue driving to reach the arbitrary income goal."
How not to be taken in
The best way to defend yourself against dark UX is, of course, to be alert to designers' tricks, and never rely on your gut instinct, as that's precisely what they are targeting.
"The notion of decision-making as a purely intentional or ‘rational’ process is outdated," says Vlaev. "Decisions commonly occur on an unconscious level."
So if you're shopping, don't be tempted to buy anything that wasn't on your list, however much of a bargain it seems, even if time appears to be running out. If you're signing up for a service or subscription, Google is your friend: check out whether other users have had difficulty cancelling later on.
And always check carefully for alternatives before ever clicking on any payment options, to make sure you don’t sign up for a service you might later regret. Amazon, we’re looking at you.
In the dark? Watch out for these patterns
Once you know about dark patterns on the web, you'll start to spot them on many websites. Here are some typical strategies, as described by Purdue University’s Colin M Gray and colleagues:
1. Nagging: Just what it says – repeated prompts to persuade you to do something. Eventually, you’ll hit agree.
2. Obstruction: The Hotel California of dark UX: signing up for a service is easy – but you can never leave…
3. Sneaking: When the design tries to hide or delay revealing important information, such as delivery costs or booking fees.
4. Interface interference: The button saying “yes” is much bigger than the one saying “no” (or, often and even worse, “not now”).
5. Forced action: When you must perform a certain action to access a service – for example, compulsory software updates when you restart your PC.