Dark patterns—tricks to make you spend more online

Dark patterns are tactics websites or apps use to nudge, manipulate or trick you into spending more money than you’d planned or providing personal data that’s not needed.

This page describes common dark patterns, so you can identify and avoid them when shopping online.

Hidden costs

Hidden costs are extra costs you only find out about towards the end of your purchase, or which are made less obvious. They include pre-selected extras you may not want and add-ons presented so you feel you have to buy them.

Some hidden costs are even sneakier, such as a pre-selected free trial period for a service that renews automatically if you don’t cancel before it ends—charging your card for an ongoing membership.

Trick questions

Trick questions are used to lead you to make choices that are in the business’s interests and not necessarily in yours. They are commonly used for subscriptions, auto-purchase agreements and data collection (particularly those innocent-sounding cookies—information a website stores about you when you visit).

For example, if you’re trying to cancel a subscription, you may be faced with a confusing question that asks if you really want to cancel and gives you 2 options: ‘Continue’ or ‘Cancel’. This may be intentionally unclear, where ‘Continue’ means continuing the cancellation process and ‘Cancel’ means stopping the cancellation process. You may then think you’ve cancelled the subscription until you are charged another subscription fee.

Similarly, a request to accept website cookies or data collection may have a big, bold button to accept, and a much smaller, discrete ‘Manage your cookies’ link. Or the website may give you the option to accept the cookies or to go to the cookie policy, but never give you the option to opt out of having cookies track your activities.

Scarcity cues

Scarcity cues are designed to create a fear of missing out, which pushes you to make rushed decisions about buying or spending more than you planned. Examples are countdown timers for shopping carts or notifications about discount prices and low stock (e.g. ‘Only 4 left’).

Activity notifications

Activity notifications tell you what other people are doing on a website or app (e.g. ‘Someone in Oakey just bought the You Beaut Swag’ or ‘15 people are currently looking at this hotel room’). These notifications will appear seconds apart and often be bundled with scarcity cues to create or enhance a sense of urgency.

The activity described may be fake, or they could be real purchases from within a long period that are set to repeat on the website to suggest constant business.

Confirm shaming

Confirm shaming is loaded language designed to make you feel silly or worried if you don’t agree to buying a product or service. This dark pattern usually appears on subscription offers and larger purchases.

For example, an online shop you’re browsing might offer you a 10% discount on your next purchase if you subscribe to their newsletter. Instead of giving you ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ options, you’re faced with ‘I’d love a discount!’ and ‘No thanks, I prefer to pay full price’.

Similarly, you might be offered an after-purchase care plan and the options are to tick ‘Yes please, I’ll feel better knowing I have that protection’ or ‘No thanks, I’ll take my chances’.

Forced continuity

Forced continuity refers to subscriptions that are easy to sign up to, but hard to get out of.

You may only have to provide basic details to subscribe for a product or service, but you may need to go through multiple steps online or even phone the company to cancel but be talked out of it.

Forced continuity is sometimes combined with hidden costs.

Data grabs

A data grab is when businesses ask you for more information than they need to process your request and often more than you’re comfortable giving.

Have you ever had to provide your full name and postcode when subscribing to a newsletter? Or had to provide your date of birth for a purchase? That’s a data grab and you should be concerned about what the business plans to do with your information and how securely are they storing it.

Learn about a business’s responsibilities when collecting and storing customer information.

Disguised advertisements

Disguised advertisements are often ‘clickbait’—a headline or link, which may be sensationalised or misleading, designed to attract your attention and make you click through to online content.

They are designed to look like genuine content or search results on a website that will instead redirect you to a product or service.

False hierarchy

False hierarchy tactics are designed to nudge you towards the business’s preferred product or service they provide.

The business’s preference is generally displayed prominently using attractive colours, while the least preferred option can be presented in smaller font or in subtle or dull colours.

Redirection or nagging

Businesses use redirection or nagging tactics to continuously move you away from the task you want to complete, such as trying to leave their website after window shopping (looking at what they offer without intending to buy).

Redirection or nagging often appear as pop-ups to encourage you to subscribe or set up an account to receive a discount, and in some cases you may get a series of pop-ups, one after another.

More information