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Study reveals how “dark patterns” trick users in spending more time and purchasing unnecessary things

A team of researchers from Princeton University published a study on how several online shopping websites use “dark pattern” techniques to make consumers spend more money.

Gunes Acar, a researcher at Princeton who also contributed to the study said that these techniques manipulate the users in making choices which they would not make normally and hence buy things which they do not need. By displaying a timer that says there is only a certain amount of time left to buy a commodity creates a sense of urgency which is quite questionable.

Acar along with other fellow researchers created a tool that crawled through 10,000 online shopping sites. They found out that more than 1200 sites use the “dark-pattern” technique for making customers buy more items or spend increased time on the website. Acar added that this count is a lower limit as the tool focused on the text which appeared on the sites, for example, Cancel Order directing to statements such as “No Thanks, I do not like to have delicious food” on food ordering websites.


In total, the study found out 15 ways in which shopping websites manipulate their users for greater engagement such as delaying cancellation of orders, making users feel bad for quitting the site without buying. Often these sites collaborate with third-party vendors for implementing more manipulative designs. 22 such vendors were identified by the study and it found two such vendors advertising about their techniques.

Some of the results from the study were replicated by the New York Times and it was found that few websites went as far as showing that a fake customer has purchased the items which a user has been browsing through. These are a part of the shady tactics used by the sites to force a user in making choices that are totally needless. With the help of fake situations and testimonials, companies force users to spend more time on websites.

The concept of dark pattern is not unique to online shopping alone. Scammers have taken advantage of it in making people buy app subscriptions. Social networking sites also use this technique, wherein the signup form can be easily located but not the feature of deactivating or deleting an account.

Legislation put forward by Senators Mark Warner and Deb Fischer indicates that this issue is being seriously dealt with. Senators held a meeting to discuss the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction(DETOUR) Act which would be banning these techniques on platforms with over 100 million users.

About the author: Kalpit Veerwal
Kalpit Veerwal is a second year Computer Science undergraduate at IIT Bombay. He is well known for being the only person to score 360/360 in JEE (Main). He is registered in the Limca Book of Records for the same. A blogger in his free time, he has also secured top ranks in various exams held in India and the world.

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