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Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites (princeton.edu)
228 points by mxfh 87 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

> Countdown Timer

This, and its equivalent "stock level countdown", has become an instant red flag for me. If I see one I cancel all interest in ordering that product from that company. I don't think I've seen one that is genuine (opening the page in another browser and seeing the count reset to a value, or seeing a fresh countdown started on a visit not long after the previous one ended) and I don't appreciate being lied to. And these things are lies: not misdirection, exaggeration, or any other softer word, they are outright lies and I refuse to trust companies/individuals that tell them so won't be handing over my payment details.

> Sneaking & Hidden Costs

I'm perfectly happy to make a little effort, even to pay a little extra, to find other sources for what I'm buying when I see this happen. Unfortunately I think I'm in a minority here and such trickery is getting more prevalent (so harder to avoid) for that reason.

> Even viewing products requires signing up and creating and account.

That is where my old friend Mr Fake McFakeFake who lives at Faketown, Fakeshire, FA1 1AF, plays his part. Or of course just walking away on the basis that if your offer was that good you would openly display it.

I upvote this comment for the alter ego flamboyance.

Heh - mine is similar but with a different “F” word. :)

> I don't think I've seen one that is genuine

The eCommerce site I used to work at was 100% genuine, though might have been a few minutes delayed as we had a bunch of caching layers due to our scale.

The less in-your-face ones I might trust. The low stock notice on Amazon, the "X of this early offer left" on KS, and so forth.

It is the in-your-face, ticking down occasionally (or even regularly) as you look, ones, that are an automatic turn off. I don't even check those these days because every time when I used to they were obviously not real.

The <x> left notices on Amazon are true. Try to order more than it says and it adjusts your cart, and if you order some you'll find the quantity remaining is updated--if you took them all that seller will no longer be listed for that item. (I've hit this more than once hunting down last season's stuff on clearance.)

Mentioning the countdown reminds me of the “discounter”, it’s part of a project where a friend of mine tried to purposefully incorporate as many dark patterns as possible as an art project: http://thehardestonlineshop.com/

I Could not find this one mentioned: some lodging sites add obligatory costs

(e.g., "All prices (expressed in Euros) exclude € 27.50 reservation fee, obligatory: € 7.95 p.p. bed linen per person per stay, € 6.95 p.p. cot linen, tourist tax € 1.85 ")

some countries requires that everything obligatory is included in the main price, or at least displayed with the same font, size, and placement.

this pattern should be generally illegal IMHO.

Sounds like Malaysia and their damn "++" pricing. (Plus GST, plus some other sales tax, end result is around 20-25% extra on the charge).

Well either that or I was fleeced.

I think this could qualify as Sneaking > Hidden Cost. You can see the example given is similar to yours : a fee for 'handling and care' of the flowers

Booking.com allows accomodation to add some BS fee that are an additional ~75% the cost of the displayed price, at 1/8th the font size.

Throwback to the ebay days when you could list an item for $5 but charge $150 shipping -- your item would show up at the top of the results (which by default were ordered by sell price only).

That’s because eBay only used to only charge commission on the item and not the shipping cost.

I’m sure someone else (or even the same seller) has the same item for $175 and free shipping for those wanting to indirectly donate an extra $20 to eBay shareholders.

I was probably on a list for selling games for $0.01 and clearly specifying $7 shipping in the title.

I hate that too, but sometimes it separates out for tax purposes.

I think it's ok to break down the costs on the page for that purpose, but the primary/largest price shown should be all-inclusive of any obligatory charges and taxes.

Often tax laws are written to prevent that.

I see my own company on here. I work in a back office role and I’ve never used the main customer site, because it’s just not my demographic. After some honest looking I can say our company doesn’t just do one, but all of these.

I think it’s time to move on...

"Sneaking & Hidden Costs"

The traveling industry is the worst here.

In 2016 I tried to book a holiday. I wanted it to have an okay price, good food, and a beach. I didn't even have a specific country in mind.

Took me weeks to find something. I quickly noticed why we have so many traveling agencies in Germany.

The longer you click through a buying process on such sites the more your price goes up, sometimes you pay more than double than what was advertised on page one.

In the immigrant diaspora, another reason why you see so many travel agencies is they will also quietly loan you the money for a trip, for people who need emergency flights for funerals back home or a wedding/something else. This is why if you've ever walked through say a 'Chinatown' in a western city, and have seen a dozen travel agencies stacked on top of each other all selling the same thing, they're competing with various favorable loan rates.

I have all my browsers set to delete all cookies on exit. Works wonders on things like these.

I wonder if fingerprinting will replace this.

This is called drip pricing. It's illegal in many countries.


For every site that annoys the crap out of you with these “dark patterns” there are probably 10x that don’t - that people don’t visit and don’t buy from. To fix the internet we have to fix our behavior and not PUT our money into systems that we find appalling.

It's a trade-off. ~20 years ago, when aggregator sites like Priceline, Hotwire, Kayak and the like became mainstream, we stopped seeing the individual sellers, and started picking based on a table of prices.

It seems inevitable that companies started gaming their pricing so they could appear on the top of the list.

Yes, but they may employ some of the patterns at certain times, or get bought and then apply them. You still have to be aware of what schemes to look out for.

Urgency, social proof and scarcity are dark patterns? Isn’t that online marketing 101?

Yes. To both questions.

Online marketing isn't clever or innovative, it's just using all the tricks that people wouldn't put up with in a face-to-face sales environment. 20 years ago when I bought my first car the salespeople used things like "I've sold 5 of these today!", "I can only do that price right now!" and "If you don't buy today you'll have to wait 8 weeks". Those pressure selling techniques are one of the reasons people don't like car salespeople, and why car showrooms are a bit different today (eg Tesla). Exactly the same things happen online though, and it's awful.

The fun part is that you can flip that pattern around, at least for car buying.

Whenever it's time for me to buy a car, I first decide exactly the model I want, then research all the sellers. I call them all at once and tell them I'm buying this particular car TODAY and inform them that I'm in touch with 8 other salespeople. Except that I'm not lying, and most of them pick up on the seriousness and actually make an attempt to compete.

Bonus: do this on the last day of a quarter and you sometimes get salespeople who are trying to meet their quota.

Urgency and scarcity is so often manufactured that I can definitely see this in the dark pattern side of things. As well, whether or not there really is only 3 left, they chose to add the messaging as high impact alert messaging and it's definitely intended to be coercive.

All marketing is intended to be coercive of course, but I think you land in dark pattern territory when your coercion is no longer related to the value propositions of your product. Saying "You need this TV because it has great definition!" is just selling your product. But saying "You need this TV because TIM bought one, we only have three left and this deal runs out in 9 minutes!" is just plain old bullying someone into buying, regardless of what the item was.

Often enough too, TIM didn't buy one, there is a backorder of 1000 units being delivered this week, and the deal will just start again after the current ticker finishes.

I get where you’re coming from, but I think legitimate scarcity or urgency is ok.

If there truly are 3 items left, that is a legit fact that matters. And it’s context that I had in retail. Likewise, sales do run out.

That said, online retailers don’t seem to need to meet any true in advertising standard, and they are mostly full of shit.

There is no more legitimate scarcity or urgency anymore. This also was discussed here yesterday: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20269376

I found the information on airline websites rather accurate (n seats left at this price). I guess this comes directly from how it's stored in the back end booking system (0..8, 9+ seats per booking class)

On legacy carrier official websites, not OTA or LCC like Ryanair.

Before or after buying the ticket? If I already have paid and check in online I can pick the seat. But then it is too late already.

If you mean before you bought the ticket, then I don't know. Maybe they are the last ones to be honest here... But I would be surprised if they were

Also, you can get a subscription from a website like Expertflyer and see the backend inventory from Sabre or likes.

Yeah - Booking.Com stresses me out every time I use it. It’s the worst culprit I’ve seen in this category.

Correction. The deal will start as soon as they refresh the page. These guys aren't smart enough to keep track of the timer state across visits.

Faking urgency and scarcity (and faking social proof, I guess, but IANAL and I haven't read about cases) is illegal in Germany, thanks to the law on unfair competition. The thinking is that the best product will win if you eliminate unfair practices and lying in marketing is considered an unfair practice.

The downside is that companies are supposed to enforce the law on each other, it only goes to court if they disagree. If everybody in a certain industry does this stuff, nobody has incentive to force them to comply. Consumers, clients etc do not have means to enforce it, though a handful of special associations ("Verbraucherschutzvereine", literally consumer protection associations) have been given the right to enforce it on behalf of consumers.

> Faking urgency and scarcity

No need to fake it, you can just make it up. “this discount only valid on this special day”

And you make a discount and you take it away after that day. There’s both your urgency and your scarcity. Neither was fake.

It won’t get you new buyers but it’s a great way to nudge people who were thinking of buying anyway over the edge.

Sure, a shop can do what you describe even in German laws - every now and then.

However, if you do it systematically, if you offered that "special day" discount also yesterday and will offer it tomorrow then it's de facto the regular price, telling that it's valid only today is literally a lie, violates false advertising law (which goes into detail on how discounts can be advertised, so simply gaming it with definitions doesn't wowrk) and would get your store fined so hard for lying to customers.

Yes, misleading people to drive them over the edge works, that's the whole point. If it didn't work then we wouldn't care, but since it does work we as a society have chosen that we don't want that and merchants aren't going to be allowed to use such practices.

If you produce only 50 of every product, they will always be low on stock and consumers will always be about to lose the opportunity. This is typical behaviour and retailers are increasingly designing business models around the idea. I am not sure if the German law has anything against producing a large variety of products in small quantities.

I doubt that this would matter unless you're not planning to produce more than 50 and then decide to add another 50, as you would with book editions - most products aren't produced in parallel, you'll typically get batches shipped. I'm fairly certain that you'd be asked to publish information about expected re-stocking if you publish stock counts.

The same goes for advertising & only having few items. For example, supermarkets that advertise a special offer need to have "reasonable" amounts in stock - you can't say "new iPhone X only 10 Euros" to draw in buyers and then just have two in stock.

The fake urgency is if the discount is available every day. And that's generally considered misleading advertising in the UK at least.

If you want an example: https://www.asa.org.uk/rulings/j-sainsbury-plc-a17-404229.ht...

Rotating a price between £4 and £3 every 21 days was considered to be misleading.

It is marketing 101. These are things that have been talked about in "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini. The examples used in the book to illustrate these concepts are from across the 20th century.

Yes, when the user has not chosen to get that information. How about users being able to toggle social proof on/off?

I was about to say something similar. About half of the "dark patterns" on that site strike me as completely ordinary persuasion techniques. They're "dark" only if you think that the art of sales and marketing itself is "dark". (The other half are legitimately skeevy.)

Well, it is. Ask yourself, would if your friend tried to pull these off with you, would you be friends much longer?

Reality may be shades of gray, but the simple gold standard of transactions is still "exchanging currency for value at a price point optimal to both parties". Under this standard, all these techniques are dark.

The price point of optimization is determined by the available, or lack of, information at the time of the decision - what both parties believe to be true (for whatever reason).

Yup. And providing less than maximally accurate information to the buying party is what makes a potentially fair offer a dark pattern.

These patterns get used because they work. It's game theory: if site A makes 10-50% more money because they do all this stuff, sites B-? are going to wind up doing it too.

If you want to get rid of marketing dark patterns, the solution is simple: just make sure all humans remove emotion and feelings from every decision, and give them the time and money to find all possible alternative sources for the desired product or service.


We could also recognize that businesses have an incentive to exploit human psychological impulses, and attempt to counteract that by providing the public with information about these methods so they can make more informed choices next time.

Not to mention as a society we can also legislate against certainly patterns (having to show costs up front is a common example).

There's an even simpler way: just make these patterns illegal. The universal solution to a coordination problem you mentioned above is an external party unilaterally punishing bad actors.

Very much this. Markets are OK at these things when there's symmetrical information, because it forces everyone to play nice.

When one side gets to obscure facts like this and honestly just be downright deceitful, it's time to get out the paddle. Unfortunately I don't really have a lot of faith in the US government to do the right thing right now. Maybe the EU.

Con artists make good money too, just because it's legal doesn't make it right.

> These patterns get used because they work.

because they worked in the past.

There are very few, if any at all, large companies that are honest with their customers on this stuff. I did a contract a couple of years ago with an online home rental company. I strongly suspect the "only X left in this area" and "viewed Y times" were often completely fictitious. (The latter could be easily gamed by including it in any search results page, anyway...) Since I was the PM for the product, I know for certain that 100% of the properties they featured in their weekly emails touting getaway destinations were already booked and never available. To my knowledge, they never promoted a property that was actually available the entire time I was there. And I strongly suspect there was something fishy about the advertised rates, too, since they were always ridiculously attractive properties that they knew couldn't be booked.

Flipping this around, who are your favorite sites that don't do this crap?

For me I can list Digikey ( https://www.digikey.com/ ), my recent experience ordering from them was flawless.

I can't help but think these dark pattern catalogues will make them proliferate faster

The information could also proliferate among the public, so they they won't succumb to these tricks as often.

If you really want to see some dark patterns go try booking a flight on United.com.

I was going to write something similar about some (many!) European (budget, but who can draw a line these days) airlines: I can get crazy finding those small, grey links labelled "No, I do not want to add checked bag", "No, I will not buy insurance from you", "And I do not need your car rental, airport transfer, hotel reservation, just let me buy that plane ticket!"...

Agreed. It’s fine if you’re sharp and tech-savvy but there’s a reason I am the family travel agent...my dad with his poor eyesight and short temper breezes through tricks like that and ends up paying unnecessarily.

How is it that every hotel seems to have "1 room left!"

I'm a repeat user of your booking site, why would you treat me like a naive fool?

Relevant discussion from yesterday too:

"Consumers Are Becoming Wise to Your Nudge" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20284298

I totally get what you're saying but maybe it's because you're a repeat user that they don't change this.

Among all, showing low stock warning (if plenty) is more than a dark pattern, because that's direct misinformation I think.

On our site, we show inventory on hand (when the data's available, we don't always know).

We didn't put it there to create urgency. The feature is there due to customer demand for it. Customers do not want to be surprised and disappointed when something turns out to be back ordered. They've made it very clear that they want this transparency.

Perhaps some sites misrepresent this (or just make it up). But the fact that inventory information is shown isn't in itself a dark pattern.

Not necessarily. When our warehouse is low on stock, we are truly low on stock and usually never reorder due to the seasonality of the clothing industry. That said I agree it is a dark pattern in general.

Yes of course!

In a capitalist market where the one main goal is to earn as much profit as you can people use everything legal on a big scale because they won't have a chance to beat competition otherwise.

The really big ones even invent new "dark patterns" and more than enough are also willing to do stuff which is illegal as long as they can cover their tracks or think they can.

It's a flaw in the whole system because incentives lead people to morally questionable decisions. It doesn't advance humanity or something like that - a free market is free so no one stops the evil geniuses to get the max. out of it.

Oh I forgot - many of the ppl responsible for implementing these patterns are here to vote stuff like this down.


Haha at least you are honest ;-)

Don't a lot of these fall under 'false advertising'? Seems like each country's regulators are not doing as much to combat this online as they are in brick and mortar shops?

Meta: I really like how the paper is summarized on the site.

I think pop-overs and other interruptions should be considered a dark pattern.

Probably the original dark pattern.

Some other examples: Ticket Master, Wigs.com

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