Study of over 11,000 online stores finds 'dark patterns' on 1,254 sites

User interface dark patterns are becoming common on online stores.
Written by Catalin Cimpanu, Contributor

A large-scale academic study that analyzed more than 53,000 product pages on more than 11,000 online stores found widespread use of user interface "dark patterns"-- practices meant to mislead customers into making purchases based on false or misleading information.

The study -- presented last week at the ACM CSCW 2019 conference -- found 1,818 instances of dark patterns present on 1,254 of the ∼11K shopping websites (∼11.1%) researchers scanned.

"Shopping websites that were more popular, according to Alexa rankings, were more likely to feature dark patterns," researchers said.

But while the vast majority of UI dark patterns were meant to trick users into subscribing to newsletters or allowing broad data collection, some dark patterns were downright foul, trying to mislead users into making additional purchases, either by sneaking products into shopping carts or tricking users into believing products were about to sell out.

Of these, the research team found 234 instances, deployed across 183 websites.

Below are some of the examples of UI dark patterns that the research team found currently employed on today's most popular online stores.

1. Sneak into basked

Adding additional products to users' shopping carts without their consent.

Prevalence: 7 instances across 7 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

2. Hidden costs

Revealing previously undisclosed charges to users right before they make a purchase.

Prevalence: 5 instances across 5 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

3. Hidden subscription

Charging users a recurring fee under the pretense of a one-time fee or a free trial.

Prevalence: 14 instances across 13 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

4. Countdown timer

Indicating to users that a deal or discount will expire using a counting-down timer.

Prevalence: 393 instances across 361 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

5. Limited-time message

Indicating to users that a deal or sale will expire will expire soon without specifying a deadline, thus creating uncertainty.

Prevalence: 88 instances across 84 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

6. Confirmshaming

Using language and emotion (shame) to steer users away from making a certain choice.

Prevalence: 169 instances across 164 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

7. Visual interference

Using style and visual presentation to steer users to or away from certain choices.

Prevalence: 25 instances across 24 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

8. Trick questions

Using confusing language to steer users into making certain choices.

Prevalence: 9 instances across 9 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

9. Pressured selling

Pre-selecting more expensive variations of a product, or pressuring the user to accept the more expensive variations of a product and related products.

Prevalence: 67 instances across 62 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

10. Activity messages

Informing the user about the activity on the website (e.g., purchases, views, visits).

Prevalence: 313 instances across 264 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

11. Testimonials of uncertain origin

Testimonials on a product page whose origin is unclear.

Prevalence: 12 instances across 12 websites

Image: Arunesh et al.

12. Low-stock message

Indicating to users that limited quantities of a product are available, increasing its desirability.

Prevalence: 632 instances across 581 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

13. High-demand message

Indicating to users that a product is in high-demand and likely to sell out soon, increasing its desirability

Prevalence: 47 instances across 43 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

14. Hard to cancel

Making it easy for the user to sign up for a recurring subscription but cancellation requires emailing or calling customer care.

Prevalence: 31 instances across 31 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

15. Forced enrollment

Coercing users to create accounts or share their information to complete their tasks.

Prevalence: 6 instances across 6 websites.

Image: Arunesh et al.

The research team behind this project, made up of academics from Princeton University and the University of Chicago, expect these UI dark patterns to become even more popular in the coming years.

One reason, they said, is that there are third-party companies that currently offer dark patterns as a turnkey solution, either in the form of store extensions and plugins or on-demand store customization services.

The table below contains the list of 22 third-parties that the research team identified following their study as providers of turnkey solutions for dark pattern-like behavior.

Image: Arunesh et al.

Readers can find out more about dark patterns on modern online store from this whitepaper called "Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites."

The researchers' raw scan data and tools can be downloaded from this GitHub repository.

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