How sneaky web developers use tricks of design to trick us out of money

Rhodri Marsden investigates the so-called 'dark patterns'

Many of us are sufficiently self-absorbed to perform the occasional Google search for our own names and during one such exploration the other day I found that someone had written a book about me. This seemed improbable; my achievements are minimal, my impact upon the world minuscule – and yet this book carried a £27.99 price tag.

The names of the co-authors – Lambert M Surhone, Marriam T Tennoe and Susan F Henssonow – seemed to be lifted straight out of the register of spammers and sure enough, Mr Surhone alone is responsible for another 150,000 books currently listed on Amazon. A hint as to how he'd managed this superhuman feat was emblazoned on the front cover of the book that carried my name: High Quality Content From Wikipedia Articles.

These books, published by Betascript, a Mauritian-based subsidiary of German publisher VDM, are simply print-on-demand titles that take advantage of Wikipedia's generous licensing terms. They're generated by computer – pulling in enough related articles from Wikipedia to fill a book – and then put on sale at a price-point that makes them look like serious academic works. Hence some truly glorious titles, such as Taco Shop Poets Anthology and Scalpel (Trading) Market Manipulation – but nothing that you can't already read on the web for free.

As you might expect, these books haven't been very well received. "Worthless" and "junk" are just two words that appear regularly in Amazon reviews of Betascript-published tomes, but while you might class this as a scam, it could be argued that VDM and Amazon aren't doing anything wrong. Wikipedia's licence permits it to put these books on sale and it's made perfectly clear on the cover what the book's contents are. We're just gullible customers, duped by something that isn't quite what it seems – something that's incredibly prevalent on the internet.

From social engineering techniques that unwittingly force us to surrender our passwords to complete strangers, to versions of I Will Survive on Spotify that claim to be by Gloria Gaynor, but are in fact performed by a bunch of faceless session musicians, the web is alive with potential for confusion. "Technology moves on, but we don't," says Harry Brignull, user experience designer at Brighton-based designer Clearleft. "The kind of tricks that were played on us back in the middle ages – when you bought a pig in a sack and got home to discover it was a cat – are now taking shape in digital form."

Brignull has bestowed the term "Dark Patterns" upon the perfectly legal deceptions in the world of design that, through our own cognitive bias, lead us to make silly mistakes. He's been cataloguing them on a wiki at darkpatterns.org for over a year and has become well versed in the ways in which a fool and his money can be parted. But he has sympathy for gullible humans. "Think about it," he says. "We have to skim and scan read; we have to skip the Ts & Cs. If we took no risks it'd take 24 hours solid to mail-order a second-hand book or find the cheapest car insurance. We've developed a set of coping strategies to use the web effectively, so I wouldn't call it gullibility – I'd call it productive laziness. Black-hat designers know all about these shortcuts we use and they use this knowledge to trick us."

Brignull believes that the companies who are more open and honest about their methods ought to see rewards from appreciative customers. "If companies keep using dark patterns, they'll end up looking bad. I'm not saying businesses should be kind, but there's a balance to be struck." History tells us, however, that Brignull may be slightly over-optimistic. Here are five common pitfalls that thousands of us are suckered into every day.

Confusing Forms

We've all encountered them; from deliberately poorly laid-out forms that force us to purchase unwanted travel insurance when booking a trip, to the checkboxes that use so many double negatives that you're not sure if you're signing up for marketing information spam. "Do not leave this box unchecked if you don't not want to not receive special offers from third parties..." Harry Brignull notes that when such forms are tested, the confusing ones will always deliver better results for the company. "This may be causing the web to evolve toward dark patterns. The lesson here is that you should never rely on a single method and a single metric to understand your customers. Their opinions, feelings and trust in your company are more broad-ranging than their behaviour in a single split-second on your site."

Eye-catching Adverts

The competition for our online clicks is a furious one and over the years designers have employed a number of irritating techniques to force us to click against our will. Ten years ago, the "Punch The Monkey" banner advert became ubiquitous; the idea was supposedly to click on the head of a rapidly moving monkey in order to win some kind of prize. But it didn't matter where you clicked – you were taken to the same site in any case. Other examples include plain backgrounds that, when you click, whisk you to an advertisers site, or download sites festooned with so many buttons with the word "download" you have no idea where you're supposed to click, so frequently get it wrong.

Dubious Apps

There's an app revolution underway. Eager to equip our smartphones and tablets with the latest software, we download apps without really thinking – and in huge numbers; around 29 billion apps are due to be downloaded in 2011. As a result, slightly misleading descriptions or titles cause us to make ill-considered purchases – the most famous of which was probably "I Am Rich". Once available for the iPhone, it did nothing whatsoever (and, to be fair, didn't claim to do anything) but it cost $1,000 (£620). Many found themselves buying it out of curiosity and immediately regretted it. Apple are usually fairly quick to remove misleading apps – one, called "Unlock It!", disappeared in the time it took to write this article – but the Android store isn't policed as scrupulously.

eBay Errors

Any marketplace as big as the one run by eBay is bound to attract unscrupulous sellers implementing underhand schemes. Some of these, such as counterfeiting, are illegal, and the responsibility is on eBay to remove them – one that they undertake with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Others are more benign, but still manage to fool people who are either unfamiliar with the interface, or a simply in a hurry. Common tricks include selling items for a low price – so they appear higher when items are sorted by price – and then inflating shipping costs; also items that are miscategorised or mislabelled, such as unlocked phones that actually turn out to be guidebooks detailing how to unlock your phone.

Forced continuity

Many online businesses offer free trials that require you to give your credit card details. You don't get debited unless you've failed to cancel by the time the free period has elapsed. But, as Brignull says, "this forced continuity can be applied both ethically and unethically, with many shades of grey". Some companies fail to remind you that you're about to be charged; others make it difficult for you to cancel your subscription. "Of course there will always be tension between businesses and their customers," says Brignull. "And reminder emails will reduce the conversion from a free to paid plan." So it's ethically questionable – but certainly not illegal. Sadly, the onus is on us to pay a little more attention.

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