Online safety / March 18, 2024

Dark patterns: What to watch for and tips to avoid them

Amanda Lee

Amanda Lee

Senior Program Manager, Tech for Good & TELUS Wise

Person on sofa looking at laptop screen

Have you ever felt tricked or manipulated while using a website or app? You may have encountered what is known as a "dark pattern." Dark patterns are deceptive design choices that some companies/websites use to influence your behaviour and nudge you into actions you may not have intended. These tactics take advantage of how our brains work and try to drive us to make a purchase, sign up for a service, or share personal information, even if it's not what we really want.

Examples of dark patterns include:

  • Hidden costs: Concealing additional fees or charges until the user is about to complete a transaction, leading to unexpected costs.
  • Forced continuity: Encouraging users to sign up for a free trial, only for it to turn into an often-costly, ongoing subscription.
  • Misdirection: Using visual cues or wording to steer users towards a particular action, such as making a default option appear more attractive or difficult to decline.
  • Roach motel: Making it easy for users to sign up for a service but intentionally difficult to cancel or delete their account.
  • Urgency: Creating a sense of urgency or scarcity to pressure users into making quick decisions, often through countdown timers or limited-time offers.
  • Friend spam: Automatically sending invitations or messages to a user's contacts without the user’s explicit consent.

While marketers may view them as ingenious, dark patterns are considered unethical and can erode trust between users and companies. They are often used to maximize profits or manipulate user behavior, disregarding the user's best interests. Several organizations and initiatives, such as the Dark Patterns Tip Line, aim to raise awareness and combat the use of dark patterns in digital design.

To protect yourself from falling victim to these unethical practices, here are some tips to avoid dark patterns:

  1. Be mindful: Stay alert and pay attention to the design elements and prompts you encounter while browsing websites or using apps. Look out for attempts to mislead or manipulate your actions.

  2. Read carefully: Take the time to read and understand the information presented to you. Don't rush through the process, especially during sign-ups or purchases. Dark patterns often rely on users not fully reading or comprehending what they are agreeing to.

  3. Double-check: Before clicking on any buttons or links, double-check their labels and descriptions.

  4. Review privacy policies: Familiarize yourself with the privacy policies of websites and apps you use. Dark patterns can exploit your personal information, so it's essential to understand how your data is being collected and used.

  5. Look for opt-out options: Dark patterns often make it difficult to unsubscribe or cancel services. Before signing up for anything, ensure there are clear and accessible options to opt-out or cancel if needed.

  6. Seek recommendations: Consult trusted sources (for example, Better Business Bureau ratings) or friends for recommendations on reputable websites or apps. They can provide insights into platforms that prioritize the user experience and ethical design practices.

  7. Report dark patterns: If you come across a website or app employing dark patterns, report it to the company and the Better Business Bureau. If you believe the dark patterns have crossed into the realm of scams or fraud, you can also report it to the Canadian Anti Fraud Centre. By taking the time to call out unethical dark patterns, you can contribute to the fight against deceptive practices.

By following these tips, you can navigate the digital landscape with greater awareness and protect yourself from falling prey to dark patterns. Remember, your informed choices and vigilance play a vital role in creating a fair and user-friendly online environment.

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