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This is a tactic the study identified that pressures people into buying by creating a false sense of urgency. Some sites may display an actual countdown timer, while others claim an offer is valid for a limited time.
But here's the thing: These deadlines are often meaningless. Researchers found more than 100 instances where a site's timer would either reset after time ran out, or the limited-time offer simply remained valid anyway.
You know what else might be meaningless? What Amanda and Marc B. are buying. Shopping sites commonly display messages like "Amanda from Saskatchewan just saved $150 on her order," or "Marc from New Jersey just added this item to his cart." The alerts are a type of dark pattern that hijacks our normal tendency to weigh the actions and opinions of others as we make decisions. Customer testimonials do the same, and can qualify as a dark pattern if their source isn’t clear.
And in some cases, Amanda and Marc probably aren't even real.
The researchers called out ThredUp, a market for secondhand clothes, for using fake names and locations in combination with products that were always identified as being “just sold.” Prompted by the study, the New York Times looked into the site as well, finding it to be pulling names, locations, and items from a preprogrammed list and presenting combinations as real purchases taking place. ThredUp told the Times it was using "real data" but changing names and locations to protect privacy. ThredUp did not reply to the Times when asked if the messages represented actual recent purchases, and the company has not responded to a request for comment from Quartz.
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Another common tactic the researchers studied is “confirmshaming,” where an opt-out requires you to select an option worded to reflect negatively on you. It’s an example of misdirection, which guides users to an outcome without technically limiting their choices, the way a site may bold one option in a prompt and make the ones it doesn’t want you to pick less prominent.
A related technique is called “pressured selling.” That’s when a site makes the more expensive option the default, or steers you into buying related products to get you to spend more. Maybe the sneakiest misdirection is a trick question that relies on confusing language with double negatives, making you tick a box if you don’t want to receive emails.
To get you to share data that you might not have otherwise, sites may force you to create an account just to browse, or make you accept their terms of service in the same prompt where you sign up for emails.
And to push you into making hasty decisions, they may convince you that the items you’re looking at are in short supply.
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It’s basically induced FOMO, like that twinge of anxiety you feel when you see everyone having a great time in your social feeds and you’re not there. In the shopping version, you’re being persuaded to buy now or risk missing out.
This creates a sense of urgency for shoppers. One variety of this approach, which the researchers documented on the site Fashion Nova, is to alert users that there's high demand for the product they're looking at. Another tells users there's low stock for the product, even sharing how many of an item remain. But the study found some sites—including 6pm.com, the discount division of Zappos—showed low-stock warnings for nearly all products.
Sites like 6pm may very well be telling customers the truth when they say stock is low, but the researchers found clear instances on other sites where that wasn't the case. Some showed available items decreasing according to a recurring, predictable schedule. One site just randomly generated the amount of stock with each page load.
To get you to spend more, sites might sneak items into your shopping cart, like adding a greeting card if you’re buying flowers, or insurance if you’re getting a laptop—both real examples from the study. Others delay giving you information until the last moment, not disclosing fees until you’ve nearly completed checkout, when you’re more likely to accept them. And the study caught several sites using what looked like a free trial or one-time fee to charge a recurring subscription.
Of course, if a site is too frustrating, you can always just cancel. In fact, you can go ahead and do that now.
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Just kidding! Since many people avoid getting on the phone with a customer service representative, many sites make human interaction the only way you can cancel an order or subscription. This obstruction tactic works by making an action harder than it should be to dissuade people from doing it.
Altogether, the researchers discovered more than 1,800 instances of dark patterns across the sites they analyzed. They described their numbers as the "lower bound" of how prevalent these tactics really are, since they used an automated method that only looked at text-based interfaces on a sample of products per site.
The findings raise an important question: What crosses a line? The researchers deemed more than 200 of the instances they tallied as outright "deceptive." But more often they’re what some might simply call clever design—techniques that are adept at playing on the normal ways we analyze information and make decisions. Either way, buyers beware.