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Coined in 2010, the term “dark patterns” refers to a range of potentially manipulative user interface designs in ecommerce and elsewhere that result in users taking action that benefit the sponsoring website.

The Federal Trade Commission is taking a particular interest in digital “dark patterns,” and online retailers should be aware that this scrutiny may result in future FTC action.

So, what are digital dark patterns?

The field of study into dark patterns is new and relates to user interface designs in shopping and privacy. A recent research paper from Princeton University found up to 84 pattern types; some of those include bait and switch, disguised ads, misdirection, hidden costs, forced action, and last-minute consent.

You may have experienced dark patterns when trying to cancel a subscription. The merchant creates a nearly impossible path to cancel, making it more difficult than it’s worth to discontinue their service.

“….Some sites sneak extra items into a consumer’s online shopping cart, or require users to navigate a maze of screens and confusing questions to avoid being charged for unwanted products or services.” Source: Press Release “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light: An FTC Workshop” published by the FTC on February 24, 2021.

Here’s a video from that explains this concept in more detail: 

Why should you avoid using dark pattern tactics?

When designing your online store, retailers should create a user experience that leaves consumers happy about their experience. A poor user experience can frustrate shoppers, causing more time spent interacting with your contact center, increased chargebacks, and declining consumer loyalty.

Dark patterns can also lead to consumer outrage in public forums such as social media, or worse yet, civil litigation.

Consider the class action suit Perkins v. LinkedIn Corp. settled in 2015 for $13 million. Litigants successfully argued that LinkedIn’s system manipulated users into granting permission to import and spam contacts through a service called “Add Connections.” This class action suit demonstrated reputational harm was inflicted by LinkedIn when it generated spam in the name and likeness of the user they manipulated into importing their contacts.

Voters in California approved legislation in 2020 that outlawed some dark patterns. Washington state is also considering similar legislation. With changing regulations, retailers should review their user experience design and provide a positive experience throughout their site.

Retailers who wish to avoid FTC and public scrutiny can learn more about digital dark patterns at a workshop hosted by the FTC on Thursday, April 29, 2021, at 9 a.m.