Deceptive patterns: exposing the tricks tech companies use to control you

The Venus Flytrap is nature’s cunning strategist. This unique plant, with its jaw-like leaves and sensitive trigger hairs, is an epitome of evolutionary ingenuity. It lures, captures, and digests unsuspecting insects employing a remarkable blend of allure and deception. 

This remarkable strategy mirrors how some companies use attractive facades to draw consumers into traps as unsuspecting as the fly in the grasp of the flytrap’s leafy jaws.

Harry Brignull coined the term “dark patterns” back in 2010 defining it as a ‘user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills’. He has spent his time since becoming an expert in the topic, documenting examples on his website, speaking at conferences and giving evidence both to Government reviews and in legal cases as an expert witness. Think of him as the Martin Lewis of digital design, seeking out those who use behavioural science for nefarious ends. 

Deceptive Patterns was published late in 2023. It is the definitive book on the topic, drawing together evidence from across the world. Brignull carefully categorizes, explains and elucidates the different flavours of deceptive pattern – using copious real-world examples. The topic is interesting both because it sits at the intersection of applied psychology, design and law, and because it is highly dynamic. Consumers learn by trial and error, companies evolve their tactics and legislation grinds slowly forwards. 

A useful taxonomy 

Brignull relies on the Mathur et al 2019 taxonomy in his work as an expert witness. It categorises deceptive patterns into sneaking (e.g. hidden costs), urgency, misdirection, social proof, scarcity, obstruction (e.g. hard to cancel), and forced action (e.g. having to share your info to complete your task). 

Pressure selling

Whilst all categories are important, two animate me most. 

Anyone who has booked an airline ticket or hotel online will be familiar with messages relating scarcity (“2 rooms left!”) and social proof (“5 people looking at this room now”). They are so frequently used as to be comical to the regular user. 

I have lost count how many consumers have mentioned it to me in interviews. I completed an online experiment to explore the issues back in 2019 which was published in Behavioural Scientist. The verdict? Two thirds of the British public (65 percent) interpreted examples of scarcity and social proof claims used by hotel booking websites as sales pressure. Half said they were likely to distrust the company because of seeing them (49 percent).  

The working assumption for the average person in our study was that companies were falsely claiming scarcity and social proof as a sales ploy. Evidence from the book confirms this suspicion. There are a boatload of Shopify countdown timer online shop extensions: sellers can just create a countdown timer for their sale to end… which then resets itself as soon as the time elapses. Similarly Hey!Scarcity Low Stock Counter provides helpful drop down menus to create fictitious low stock messages. Their sales copy bluntly states business can use the tool to “hurrify visitors and create a sense of urgency & scarcity.” As the Competition and Markets Authority has found, the effects of these deceptive patterns are combinatorial, the net result being that people feel pressured and uncomfortable. That’s not nice!


Pic: “Hey!Scarcity’s” Low Stock Counter app

Why is this important? 

Firstly, because it is widespread. The biggest companies in the world which you rely on daily – like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – are all guilty of employing these tactics historically. 

But second, and most importantly, when a company opts to use a deceptive pattern then exploit human vulnerabilities. We all get busy, tired & distracted from time to time so it is hard for the consumer to keep their guard up permanently. But if you consider that the most vulnerable in society may be time-poor, have lower educational attainment and rely on a smaller screen with lots of scrolling – it becomes urgent. Indeed, recent research has shown how deceptive patterns are being used to push people of limited means towards expensive credit like Buy Now Pay Later. It just should not happen. 


Pic: Citizen’s Advice “Buy Now…. Pain Later?” report – showing people are often defaulted into BNPL credit


The future

The EU is being proactive with legislation and investigation. GDPR covers some of the relevant territory and 2024 sees the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Acts come into force. In the UK the Competition and Markets Authority is on the case, with a particular focus on Choice Architecture and Hotel Booking.

Education, legislation & enforcement, and industry self-regulation are all needed to make things better for consumers. Otherwise, like unsuspecting insects they will be snapped up in the all-powerful jaws of Dionaea muscipula.