Dark Patterns: how websites use complex behavioural science to manipulate you into clicking, buying, and subscribing

If you've ever tried to cancel a subscription, you'll be maddeningly familiar with the rabbit hole of sparse 'contact us' information, with conspicuously unhelpful 'help' pages buried deep in a company's website, and with the dozens of airy 'frequently asked questions', none of which offer much guidance at all. You'll be familiar with one sensation in particular: frustration.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 28th February 2022, 11:25 am
Darryl Morris
Darryl Morris

This is where Darryl Morris found himself, mired in a infuriating web of intentional obtuseness. "Clearly they were trying to frustrate me into not cancelling," says Darryl, a writer, broadcaster, radio host, and Lancashire Evening Post columnist who works for the BBC. "I did some digging and found out this was intentional; part of a phenomena in website design."

Darryl had stumbled into the world of dark patterns, manipulative website design tricks which coerce you into doing things you might not want to, be that clicking, sharing, spending, or subscribing. He drilled deeper, becoming increasingly aware of the power such nefarious tactics could wield in an era when so much of our professional and social lives plays out online.

What he found spurred him on to produce and present what has since become his debut BBC World Service radio documentary titled Dark Patterns in which he explores and exposes the mind-bending tricks and techniques used by websites whilst also speaking to psychologists, design experts, and victims of this carefully-constructed labyrinth to evaluate their impact.

Darryl Morris

"Dark patterns contain this layer of behavioural psychology which very few people know about," says Darryl, 31. "We've all come across a dark pattern technique, but I don't think we realise the scale or level of sophistication: these patterns employ advanced behavioural science to pull on bits of your brain and they're getting smarter every day.

"That made me question just how free we really are when making a decision online," he adds. "Getting caught by a dark pattern can happen to anyone: you can be as savvy and as aware of these patterns as you want but, by the patterns' very nature, they're incredibly difficult to spot and you therefore don't know what's happening to you even when it's happening.

"At one point, I genuinely came to ask myself 'is this decision that I'm making actually mine?'"

An element of behavioural science has always been a factor in marketing, but in the wild west of the world wide web where data is king due to the financial value of concepts such as targeted ads, harvesting as much information about people online has become a veritable gold rush. And web designers will go to extreme lengths to get in on the action.

Dark Patterns is available on BBC Sounds now

"For the documentary, we spoke to a woman who's spent her life in the grips of a really bad a shopping addiction," says Darryl, born in Bolton. "It's chipped away at her and turned her life upside down. When we introduced her to the concept of dark patterns, it was like she had a revelation with regards to her struggles with spending.

"No matter how hard she tried, the effects of malicious web design were tugging on parts of her brain," he adds. "She never really stood a chance because the potential for her to control this issue was non-existent."

It's an unsettling concept and, while some examples of dark patterns (such as not being able to find out how to cancel a subscription, known as the 'roach motel' paradigm) lean more towards the superficially annoying end f the spectrum, others are less fundamentally frustrating and more devious in their approach.

They can range from carefully-worded questions in online forms designed to coax more information from you than necessary and 'Privacy Zuckering', which tricks you into publicly sharing data. Sneak-into-basket items added to online shopping carts as part of opt-out-only promos and price-comparison prevention to hamper your ability to make an informed decision.

Darryl Morris spoke to a number of expects for the documentary

Sometimes dark patterns emerge in the form of disguised ads masquerading as content, as hidden costs added in the final stages of a check-out process, 'confirmshaming' to guilt you do something by phrasing things to shame people into compliance, and forced continuity where a free trial ends and your card silently starts getting charged.

Every weapon in the web designer's arsenal is geared towards one thing: extracting data, interaction, and even money from users.

"Sites are under immense pressure, so they're constantly making small tweaks to get them that extra eyeball, subscriber, or bit of money," says Darryl. "That leads to websites being designed in an arguably unethical way. Take data, which is the oil of the tech industry. Quite often dark pattern website design is employed to get that data out of you.

"Website designers know the human brain has an assumption bias towards patterns, so they purposefully alter the way those patterns work to catch you out in things like forms so that you end up handing over more data than you intended to," he adds. "That can have consequences for your job, your credit score, and what law enforcement agencies know about you.

Darryl Morris at the Radio Academy

"It's very consequential and you could argue that we really should have more control over that data."

Far from wanting to scaremonger, Darryl is quick to point out that not every website is designed this way and that not every web designer is some data-mining Bond villain. But he also reiterates one undeniable fact: that all websites are designed by people, meaning that they are imbued with certain motives; motives which can sometimes be squeezing as much profit out of you as possible.

So what do we do about all this?

"There are two factors: awareness and regulation," says Darryl. "I can personally attest to the fact that, since doing this doc, I've started to notice dark patterns more and am therefore less likely to be caught out; I'm more aware of how my decisions are being influenced and that things are sometimes designed to confuse and frustrate me.

"The other side of the coin is legislation," he continues. "While it's extraordinarily difficult for governments to legislate against dark patterns because it's a very grey area, it can be done. Take California, where cancelling a subscription has been made easier because of legislation against the roach motel pattern. But it's a race between legislators and tech."

Far from wanting to clamp down on every tool in the online marketer's shed, Darryl nevertheless draws a key comparison.

"Fundamentally, we can't live in a world without regulation," he says. "If you walk into a supermarket, everything is designed to influence you and make you buy things, from the layout to the music, because behavioural psychology has been present in sales forever. But you're never going to trapped and unable to get out of a supermarket because of building regulations.

"The building itself is designed to keep people safe," Darryl adds. "The argument is that websites should also have a similar layer of regulation to protect users. It's not unreasonable to expect governments to legislate on our behalf to keep us safe. But, while it takes governments years to pass laws, tech companies can make changes in an afternoon.

"And, unfortunately, that's not a fair race."

Dark Patterns is a BBC World Service documentary available on BBC Sounds produced by Made in Manchester Productions and produced and presented by Darryl Morris.