Dark Patterns: Avoid These User Experience Tactics or Face FTC Takedown - DirectPayNet
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Dark Patterns: Avoid These User Experience Tactics or Face FTC Takedown


User experience and design carry a hidden element of sinister manipulation unbeknownst to consumers called dark patterns.

Dark patterns are insidious UX tactics used by companies to trick customers into completing unwanted or unnecessary purchases, or taking any action that yields more profit for the business at the detriment of customer satisfaction and trust.

Consumers have had enough, and so has the FTC. Though not new to dark pattern takedowns, the Federal Trade Commission is stepping up, once again, threatening to punish offending websites if they don’t take steps to prevent or remove dark patterns from influencing their users.

Read on as we discuss what dark patterns are, how harmful they can be, and what prevention measures online businesses should implement before it’s too late.

What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns are deceptive user interface tactics used to manipulate customers into completing an unwanted purchase or action. Companies rely on dark patterns to increase their sales and profits, often at the expense of customer satisfaction and trust.

Though sometimes these tactics may appear to help the customer, they are actually designed to be confusing and misleading, making them difficult to spot and avoid.

A great free resource is darkpatterns.org.

Dark patterns are often hidden within user interfaces, making them difficult to spot without careful examination. One example is pre-ticked boxes which can lead customers accidentally agreeing to services or products they don’t want. They can also involve the use of confusing language, making it hard to understand the terms and conditions of a service or product. The use of visually appealing images and fonts can also be used to influence customers, making them more likely to click on certain links or buttons.

The FTC has recently stepped up enforcement against companies using dark patterns, threatening to take down any websites which do not take steps to prevent their customers from being deceived. Companies must now ensure they have an ethical approach to user experience design or face the consequences.

It’s not only the FTC, though. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) also provides a regulatory checklist for data protection and consumer choice. If you are found in violation of CCPA, you have 30 days to amend your deceptive design patterns and improve the customer experience before facing fines.

The most infamous FTC takedown regarding dark patterns is for the company Vonage, which will pay $100 million in a settlement.

How do dark patterns affect consumers?

Dark patterns are an unfortunately commonplace UX tactic used by companies to take advantage of customers. These patterns involve deliberately misleading or confusing customers in order to get them to do things that benefit the company but not the customer, such as extra purchases or clicking on ads. This financial benefit is gained at the expense of customers’ trust and satisfaction, leading to frustration and a damaged relationship with the business.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has recently taken notice of this unfair practice, issuing warnings to offending businesses and stating that sites can be taken down if they don’t take steps to prevent the use of dark patterns. These steps include making sure their UX and user interface design practices are transparent and easily understood. This puts the onus on companies to make sure their customers understand the products they’re buying and the actions they’re taking, thus giving the customer the power to make informed decisions.

Dark patterns are an unfortunate but pervasive problem in the online consumer landscape, and the FTC’s warning underscores the need for companies to take responsibility for their UX designs. Consumers deserve to have a good user experience and not be tricked into doing something that benefits businesses more than it does them. Now, more than ever, companies should be aware of their responsibilities to their customers, and take steps to ensure that their UX is free from manipulative dark patterns.

The FTC’s main focus at the moment is on the subscription market, which also happens to be the most lucrative business model.

12 Examples of Dark Patterns

There are 12 different types of dark patterns. Below, we’ve outlined what each is so you can avoid using them on your storefront.

1. Bait and Switch

This involves presenting customers with offers that lead them to believe they’re getting one product or service, only to switch it up at the last minute and offer something else during the checkout process.

In other words, it’s when a user sets out to do one thing but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.

2. Confirmshaming

This dark pattern involves emotionally berating customers and evoking a feeling of guilt when trying to opt out of your service.

Some confirmshaming tactics appear playful, but when it can have a serious toll on customers and their bank accounts.

3. Disguised Ads

This involves disguising ads as something else, such as a download button, an opt-in form, or a pop-up notification that tricks users into thinking it’s part of a product.

The customer is not aware that they’re clicking on an ad, so they may be tricked into taking action when they didn’t intend to.

4. Forced Continuity

This dark pattern is similar to bait and switch, but instead of switching out the offer, the customer is forced to continue with it.

This might involve signing up for a subscription service or entering into a contract that they didn’t intend to. For example, when a user isn’t informed of the ending date of their free trial, so they’re automatically charged for the full subscription price unintentionally.

5. Friend Spam

This dark pattern involves coercing users into sharing their contact information with the company in order to get a discount or other incentive.

The user is asked to provide their friends’ details, which can then be used for marketing or other unsolicited offers. Think about when you download a new app and it immediately asks you if it can access your contacts. If you click “Yes”, the app then notifies all of those contacts that you’re using the app and they should download it too.

6. Hidden Costs

This dark pattern involves hiding additional charges until after the customer has completed their purchase.

The customer may be surprised to see extra fees for shipping or taxes added on after they’ve already paid for the product. This can lead to a feeling of being scammed and an overall negative experience with the company.

7. Misdirection

This dark pattern involves redirecting customers to a different page than the one they intended to visit.

For example, you may click on a link to view a product but be directed to the company’s homepage instead. This can be used to get the customer to take an action they weren’t expecting, such as signing up for a newsletter or making a purchase.

8. Roach Motel

This dark pattern involves making it easy for customers to sign up or subscribe, but very difficult to cancel their subscription or unsubscribe.

The customer may find themselves locked into a service they no longer want, with no clear way to get out of it. This can lead to frustration and a feeling of being trapped.

9. Sneak into Basket

This dark pattern involves adding items to a customer’s shopping cart without their knowledge or consent.

The customer may be unaware that the item is in their cart until they reach the checkout page, leaving them feeling tricked and taken advantage of. This can lead to distrust of the company and an overall negative experience with your brand.

10. Trick Questions

This dark pattern involves asking customers confusing or misleading questions in order to get them to take an action they didn’t intend to. These deceptive practices often use double negatives to confuse customers.

For example, the customer may be asked if they’d like to sign up for a newsletter when what they really wanted was to download a free ebook. The customer may not realize that they’ve agreed to something they didn’t want, leading to frustration and distrust.

A very popular example is a checkbox that’s been pre-checked, opting the user into something they aren’t aware of.

11. Privacy Zuckering

This dark pattern involves making it difficult for customers to understand how their data is being used and what permissions they are giving the company. It gets its name from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Customers may find themselves agreeing to terms and conditions without fully understanding them, leading to a feeling of being taken advantage of.

12. Price Comparison Prevention

This dark pattern involves preventing customers from comparing prices for a product or service.

The customer may be unable to find the price of an item on the company’s website, or they may be blocked from accessing third-party comparison websites. This can lead to frustration and a feeling of being taken advantage of.

By preventing customers from comparing prices, companies can pressure them into paying more than necessary for their purchases.

How Companies Can Avoid Dark Patterns

We have three simple steps for you to take to avoid using dark patterns, aside from being aware of the 12 types above.

1. Be Transparent

Be clear about what content is advertising and only collect data after receiving consent. This means that customers must be informed about what data you are collecting, how it will be used, and what choices they have regarding their personal information.

2. Be Respectful

Obtain informed consent from users before making changes to their accounts or collecting data. Make sure customers have a choice in the matter and are not pressured into agreeing to something they don’t want.

3. Be User-focused

Design your website, products, and services in such a way that the customer is always aware of what they are doing. Make sure customers know exactly what to expect before committing to anything.

Dark Patterns Aren’t The Only Thing Threatening Your Business

Dark patterns are a growing concern for consumers, regulators, and companies alike. They are often used unknowingly by companies, but they can have a huge impact on customer satisfaction, trust, and loyalty.

The FTC has taken a proactive stance by issuing regulations intended to prevent businesses from exploiting their customers with dark patterns. It is up to companies to adhere to these guidelines and ensure that their websites are free of these strategies to ensure their customers have a positive and rewarding user experience.

But dark patterns aren’t the only threat to your online retail or e-commerce business, your payment processor can be just as harmful if it doesn’t support your business model.

If you offer subscription services or operate in a high-risk industry, you need a payment processor that supports your business type. We at DirectPayNet provide businesses like yours with a high-risk merchant account so you can operate without worrying about whether customers can make credit card payments or if you have access to funds. Get in touch with us today and tell us about your business needs.


About the author

As President of DirectPayNet, I make it my mission to help merchants find the best payment solutions for their online business, especially if they are categorized as high-risk merchants. I help setup localized payments modes and have tons of other tricks to increase sales! Prior to starting DirectPayNet, I was a Director at MANSEF Inc. (now known as MindGeek), where I led a team dedicated to managing merchant accounts for hundreds of product lines as well as customer service and secondary revenue sources. I am an avid traveler, conference speaker and love to attend any event that allows me to learn about technology. I am fascinated by anything related to digital currency especially Bitcoin and the Blockchain.