When you scroll through your credit card statement, you notice a charge you don’t remember making. A little bit of research reveals it was a service you signed up for last year that automatically enrolled you in renewals without your realizing it. You head to the website and learn that to cancel and get a refund, you have to make a phone call within specific business hours. You don’t feel like dealing with it right away, so you figure you’ll come back to it later.
But let’s be honest, you know what will happen next. You’ll forget. Then next year at this same time, scrolling through your credit card statement, you’ll repeat this whole process—probably right down to the point of not making that phone call.
What is a Dark Pattern?
This familiar scenario is an example of a dark pattern. The term refers to when websites or software are designed in ways that subtly encourage consumers to spend money they don’t want to, or that discourage actions a company doesn’t want them making.
Some companies use dark patterns maliciously. They’re happy to trick customers into making decisions they may not want if it leads to higher profits in the short term. But others do it because their focus is on making purchases and renewals as easy as possible, and they just don’t think about the flip side of that.
Why Brands Should Actively Avoid Dark Patterns
For businesses, setting up a system where a customer’s role in spending money is passive is tempting. Putting even small barriers in the way of cancellations can dissuade busy customers from taking that step, leading to more renewals and profits for the company. If making continued renewals or additional purchases extremely easy means you increase sales, why would you do otherwise?
Because any increased revenue you make due to dark patterns comes at a cost.
Dark patterns are bad for customer relationships.
If people feel tricked into spending money on something they don’t really want, they’ll come away from the experience thinking less of your brand. You may get some extra money now, but you lose customer loyalty in the process and risk harming your brand reputation.
If your company sells a subscription product—an industry in which dark patterns are especially common—making cancellations hard has an unintended consequence. A customer that may have been inclined to start and stop a subscription based on when they need the product are less likely to resubscribe later if their first attempt to cancel requires jumping through hoops. They’ll remember that annoyance and look for a competitor that offers a better customer experience. They may even go share their frustrations in customer reviews, on social media, or in conversations with friends.
You can track renewals and cancellations, but you can’t see how many potential customers avoid your brand because of hearing about the bad experience other customers had.
Examples of Dark Patterns
To avoid dark patterns, you need to understand what they look like. Some are obvious, but others are more subtle. Some common examples include:
So-called free trials that require payment information, and start charging automatically
Free trials are a common sales tactic offered by subscription services, particularly software companies. In many cases, giving someone access to a product to see if it’s a good fit for them makes perfect sense. The problem is when you advertise the trial as free, require payment information upfront, and start charging automatically without giving the prospect fair warning and an easy way to opt out of those charges.
Online learning company ABCmouse just got in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission for doing this. They weren’t upfront with consumers that they would be automatically charged without warning when the trial ended, and then again when it renewed later. And it’s cost them both in fines and consumer reputation.
Continued charges without warning
Allowing customers to set up automatic renewals for subscription products makes sense; that alone isn’t a dark pattern. But if a company makes automatic renewals the default rather than allowing customers to opt into them, that’s a problem. And if they don’t send an email letting customers know when a renewal is coming, so they can cancel it if they no longer need the product, that’s a dark pattern.
Making cancellation difficult
I recently considered signing up for the free trial of the Calm app, which provides guided meditations. But the company not only requires a credit card to sign up for the supposed free trial, but has complaint after complaint on review sites from customers angry about how difficult it is to cancel. Not very calming! This kind of dark pattern will cost you customers.
Sneaky purchase add-ons
When a prospect adds a product to their shopping cart, some websites sneak additional products into the cart before the checkout process, often something directly relevant to the product, like a warranty or additional feature. If a website is designed to show these add-ons as an option, perhaps with a box next to them a consumer can check if interested, that’s fine. If instead they’re added automatically, or the boxes default to being checked and the customer has to manually uncheck them, you’re dealing with a dark pattern.
When a consumer is comparison shopping, one of the main things they look at is how the price of different similar products compares. If they select a product taking price into consideration, only to find during the checkout process that fees and various other unexpected charges increase the price considerably, that creates a negative experience. You’re tricking them into choosing your product without full information, which puts it into the dark pattern category.
Passive aggressive form language
Also called confirmshaming, website pop-ups that frame your refusal to take an affirmative action as though you’re admitting to something shameful are annoying at best. They’re manipulative dark patterns at worst.
This is when a website or app asks you for permission to access your contacts list for a seemingly good reason, only to spam them. LinkedIn used to be famous for this type of dark pattern, until they faced a class action lawsuit over it. Even before the lawsuit, the company faced serious criticism over the practice.
Say you’re making a purchase, signing a petition, or making a donation and the form requires your contact information. Right above that submit button, you see a little checked box that opts you into receiving text messages or emails from the company or organization. This is a common tactic that counts on the person not noticing the box is there and checked, since their attention is on the Submit button. That ends up opting them in whether they really want it or not.
Making it extremely difficult to undo a previous action
Dark pattern experts call this one a roach motel. It’s when a company convinces you to take an action that benefits them, such as creating an account, then makes it extremely difficult to ever undo it. For example, someone who wants to cancel their Amazon account has to go through a multi-step process that includes getting a support representative to help.
Dark Patterns Aren’t Worth It
The reasons companies employ dark patterns are obvious. They’re an easy way to get some extra money or additional sign-ups. But if you care about keeping your customers happy, they’re not worth the cost. You’re better off making your products and services good enough to make them want to keep paying for them, without any tricks.