When Web Designs Turn Into Dark Patterns And What To Do About It

Jul 15, 2021 by Eric D. Reicin, President & CEO, BBB National Programs

Recently I wrote about the proliferation of dark patterns and tried to give readers a sense of just how widespread these practices are. But it is not just the pervasiveness of dark patterns that has lawmakers and regulators concerned, it is the intent behind them and their impact on consumers. Nonprofit leaders, in particular, should be aware of this and how to guard against it given that they are well-positioned to garner and enhance consumer trust.

Defining The Problem Of Dark Patterns

Near the end of April 2021, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a highly anticipated public workshop on this topic where government, academic and private sector panelists throughout the day underscored just how effective dark patterns are at manipulating and deceiving consumers. One panelist, Professor Lior Strahilevitz, presented results from two recent studies in which he examined the effectiveness of dark patterns, such as whether "aggressive" dark patterns were more effective than "mild" ones. 

Strahilevitz concluded that it is the mild dark patterns that are the most insidious because they “significantly increased acceptance of a program with dubious benefits without generating any backlash, alienating consumers, or causing large numbers of them to log off.” Mild patterns might consist of social proof (i.e., influencing users' behavior by describing the experiences and behavior of other users) and "confirm shaming" (e.g., presenting users with a decline button that says "I do not want to protect my private information" for purchasing identity protection software).

While malicious design or ambiguous offers certainly constitute a dark pattern, artificial intelligence (AI) also plays a role in microtargeting and manipulating consumers. Today, dark patterns benefit from real-time user data and the ability to quickly change online interfaces, making them far more effective — and diabolical — than offline tricks. As another panelist, Professor Lauren Willis put it, a different iteration of "a web or app screen isn’t produced for the reasonable consumer in a neutral context, it’s created for narrow types of consumers at their most vulnerable moments." She also elaborated on this topic in her recent paper.

Just as concerning is what Strahilevitz referred to as the "differential impact" of dark patterns. He and other FTC workshop panelists noted that there is a range of factors that can make people more susceptible to dark patterns.


Impact Of Dark Patterns On Children

Experts also suggest that dark patterns pose a threat not only to adults but to children. Because of their limited executive functioning, Dr. Jenny Radesky explained during the same FTC workshop that children likely will follow lures and rewards.

Dona Fraser, Senior VP, Privacy Initiatives of my organization elaborated on what this may look like in practice. In a game, web designers may use popular or familiar characters to pressure a child to make purchases to unlock certain features or to complete a task. This could be done by the character expressing varying levels of disappointment, which could potentially lead to emotionally charged decisions.

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of my organization encountered a case where a game threatened young players with the message: “Your pet is going to be taken away by the SPCA for animal neglect. Pay a fine of $6 cash to keep your pet.” In this case, CARU determined that the pet feature in the game created a sense of urgency to purchase virtual cash with real money to save the player’s virtual pet.


What Industry Can, And Should, Do

Based on my experience, here are a few steps nonprofit leaders can take to combat dark patterns:

  • The first step is to look inward. Think about your users’ experience and endeavor to create a transparent, ethical experience from the design of your ads to the copy on your website to the conversations with your spokespeople.
  • Understand your audience. As you modernize internal processes and acquire new tools for marketing and sales, it becomes increasingly important for you to understand if your target audience may be more susceptible to dark patterns.
  • Make sure your team is equipped to identify dark patterns and build a culture of accountability. Outside of self-assessment, consider inviting in-house experts or a third party to audit and provide proactive steps to prevent deceptive practices, intentional or otherwise.


I know this: When stakeholders that deeply understand the dynamics of an industry come together to collectively address a challenge, they can move in a better, transparent, more effective way forward. We have encountered similar inflection points in the past when an increasing lack of consumer trust in any industry was met with industry-wide efforts to increase transparency and hold each other accountable. 

These moments do not come every year, but when they do come, business and nonprofit leaders must be ready to work and collaborate to create meaningful industry self-regulation programs with clear accountability mechanisms, credible guidelines, and meaningful outcomes. So, let us seize this moment and further energize the various players in the technology industry to think more collaboratively about how to address the problem of dark patterns. This is something we can do — and frankly must do — if we want to enhance consumer trust in the marketplace

Originally published on Forbes.

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