The vast majority of websites you visit now greet you with a pop-up. This annoying obstacle to your seamless web browsing is called the “cookies banner“, and it is there to obtain your consent, in accordance with online privacy lawsfor websites to retain information about you between browsing sessions.
The cookie banner claims to offer you a choice: to accept only essential cookies that help maintain your browsing functionality, or to accept them all – including cookies that track your browsing history for resale to targeted advertising companies . Because these additional cookies generate additional revenue for the websites we visit, cookie banners are often designed to prompt you to click “accept all”.
UK Information Commissioner recently asked The G7 countries to address this problem, highlighting how weary Internet users are willing to share more personal data than they would like. But in truth, manipulative cookie banners are just one example of so-called “dark design” – the practice of creating user interfaces that are intentionally designed to trick or deceive the user.
The dark design has proven to be an incredibly effective way to encourage internet users to part with their time, money, and privacy. This in turn established “dark patterns», or sets of practices that designers know how to use to manipulate Internet users. They’re hard to spot, but they’re increasingly prevalent in the websites and apps we use every day, creating manipulable products by design, much like the persistent, ubiquitous pop-ups we’re forced to close. when we visit a new website.
Cookie banners remain the most obvious form of dark design. You’ll notice how big and cheerfully highlighted the “Accept All” button is, catching your cursor in a fraction of a second after you land on a website. Meanwhile, the less prominent “confirm choices” or “manage settings” buttons – those through which we can protect our privacy – scare us away with longer clicks.
You will know by experience which one you tend to click on. Or you can try the Speed-Run Cookie Consent, an online game that exposes how difficult it is to right-click against a dark design. E-commerce sites too frequently use dark patterns. Suppose you have found a competitively priced product that you would like to buy. You dutifully create an account, select your product specifications, enter delivery details, click through to the checkout page – and discover that the final cost, including delivery, is mysteriously higher than you originally thought. These”hidden costs” are not accidental: the designer hopes that you will simply click on “order” rather than spend even more time repeating the same process on another website.
Other dark design elements are less obvious. Free services like Facebook and YouTube monetize your attention by placing ads in front of you as you scroll, browse, or watch. In this “attention economy”, the more you scroll or watch, the more money companies make. These platforms are therefore intentionally optimized for command and hold your attention, even if you’d rather close the app and get on with your day. For example, the expert-designed algorithm behind YouTube’s “Up Next” video suggestions can keep us watch for hours if we let them.
Manipulation of users for commercial purposes is not only used on websites. Currently more than 95% of Android apps on the Google Play Store are free to download and use. Building these apps is an expensive undertaking, requiring teams of designers, developers, artists, and testers. But the designers know they’ll recoup that investment once we’ve hooked up to their “free” apps – and they’re doing it using a dark design.
In recent search Analyzing the free app-based games that are popular with today’s teens, my colleague and I identified dozens of examples of dark design. Users are forced to watch ads and frequently encounter disguised ads that appear to be part of the game. They are asked to share posts on social media and, when their friends join the game, are asked to make in-app purchases to differentiate their character from those of their peers.
Some of these psychological manipulations seem inappropriate for young users. Teenage girls’ susceptibility to peer influence is exploited to encourage them to buy clothes for in-game avatars. Some games promote unhealthy body image while others actively demonstrate and encourage bullying by indirect aggression between characters.
There are mechanisms to protect young users from psychological manipulation, such as age rating systems, codes of practice, and advice that specifically prohibits the use of a dark design. But these rely on the correct understanding and interpretation of these guidelines by the developers and, in the case of the Google Play Storedevelopers check their own work and it’s up to users to report any issues. My research indicates that these measures are not yet fully effective.
Turn on the light
The problem with the dark design is that it’s hard to spot. And dark patterns, which are established in every developer’s toolkit, are spreading fast. It’s hard for designers to resist when free apps and websites vie for our attention, judged on metrics like “time on page” and “user conversion rate.”
So while cookie banners are annoying and often dishonest, we need to consider the wider implications of an online ecosystem that is increasingly manipulative by design. The dark design is used to influence our decisions about our time, money, personal data and consent. But a critical understanding of how dark patterns work and what they hope to accomplish can help us detect and overcome their trickery.
Google had not responded to a request for comment on this story at the time of publication.