Most of the websites you visit now greet you with a pop-up. This annoying barrier to your uninterrupted web browsing is called a “cookie banner”, and is intended for websites to retain information about you between browsing sessions to secure your consent in accordance with online privacy laws.
The Cookie Banner is intended to provide you with a choice: to only agree to essential cookies that help maintain your browsing functionality, or to accept all of them – including cookies that are intended to be sold to targeted advertising firms. Tracks your browsing history. Because those additional cookies generate additional revenue for the websites we visit, cookie banners are often designed to trick you into clicking “Accept All”.
The UK Information Commissioner recently urged G7 countries to address the problem, highlighting how weary web users are agreeing to share more personal data than they wish. But in reality, manipulative cookie banners are an example of what is called “dark design” – the practice of creating user interfaces that are intentionally designed to deceive or deceive the user.
Dark design has proven to be an incredibly effective way to encourage web users to part with their time, money and privacy. This in turn has established “dark patterns”, or sets of practices designers know they can use to manipulate web users. They’re hard to spot, but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent in the websites and apps we use every day, creating products that manipulate designs, much like the persistent, always-present pop-ups that pop up when we use them. Are forced to close Go to a new website.
The cookie banner is the most obvious form of dark design. You’ll notice how the “Accept All” button is large and happily highlighted, drawing your cursor over a website within a second of your arrival. Meanwhile, the less prominent “Confirm options” or “Manage settings” buttons – through which we can protect our privacy – scare us with more time-consuming clicks.
You will know from experience what you click on. Or you can try Cookie Consent Speed-Run, an online game that highlights how difficult it is to click the right button in front of a dark design.
E-commerce websites also often use dark patterns. Let’s say you’ve found a competitively priced product you want to buy. You dutifully create an account, select your product specifications, input delivery details, click through to the payment page – and find out the final cost, including delivery, is mysteriously higher than you originally thought. These “hidden costs” aren’t accidental: the designer is hoping you’ll just hit “order” instead of spending even more time repeating the same process on another website.
Other elements of the dark design are less obvious. Free services like Facebook and YouTube grab 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. That’s why these platforms are intentionally optimized to deliver order and keep your attention, even when you close the app and go on with your day. For example, the expertly crafted algorithm behind YouTube’s “Up Next” video suggestions can keep us watching for hours if we allow them.
Read more: Remember, you are being manipulated on social media: 4 essentials
Manipulating users for commercial gain is not only used on websites. Currently, over 95% of Android apps on the Google Play store are free to download and use. Building these apps is a costly business, requiring teams of designers, developers, artists, and testers. But designers know they’ll recoup this investment once we hook up to their “free” apps – and they do it using dark design.
In recent research analyzing the free app-based games that are popular with today’s teens, my colleague and I identified dozens of examples of dark designs. Users are forced to watch ads and are often faced with disguised ads that look like part of the game. They are prompted to share posts on social media and as their friends join the game, they are prompted to make in-app purchases to differentiate their character from their peers.
Some of this psychological manipulation seems inappropriate for younger users. Teenage girls’ sensitivity to peer influence is exploited to encourage them to buy clothes for in-game avatars. Some games promote unhealthy body imagery while others actively display and encourage bullying through indirect aggression between characters.
There are mechanisms to protect young users from psychological manipulation, such as age rating systems, codes of practice, and guidance that specifically prohibits the use of dark designs. But it is up to the developers to correctly understand and interpret this guidance and, in the case of the Google Play store, the developers check their own work and it is up to the users to report any problems. Do it. My research shows that these measures are not yet proven to be completely effective.
The problem with dark design is that it is difficult to identify. And dark patterns, which are installed in every developer’s toolbox, spread rapidly. It’s hard for designers to resist when free apps and websites are competing for our attention, which is judged on metrics like “time to 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. Dark Design is used to influence our decisions about our time, our money, our personal data and our 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 until this story was published.