The 'dark patterns' fuelling the nation's fast fashion online shopping addiction

·3-min read
Shein has been named the ‘most manipulative’ fast fashion website - Instagram.com/sheinofficial
Shein has been named the ‘most manipulative’ fast fashion website - Instagram.com/sheinofficial

For a fashion editor, I am quite a procrastinator when it comes to buying clothes for myself. It’s with good reason: I want to spend my money wisely, but I also want everything in my wardrobe to be a forever piece and not bursting with clothes I never wear.

As a result, I usually have three or four items in my online shopping basket at various retailers at any given time – Net-a-Porter, Everlane and Sezane are favourites – while I mull over whether or not to hit the button and buy.

I’m not the only one to do this, so online retailers have come up with strategies to help nudge shoppers like me over the line. You’ve probably been swayed by them yourself: time-limited discounts with countdowns, a ‘low in stock’ alert when selecting your size, or a line that reads: ‘19 other people have this product in their cart’.

These tools are known as ‘dark patterns’ and they’ve been making headlines this week after Chinese online giant Shein was named the ‘most manipulative’ fast fashion site according to new research from Rouge Media.

This won’t be news to Harry Brignull, the UX (user experience) specialist who first coined the term ‘dark patterns’ in 2010 and founder of Darkpatterns.org, which calls out bad practice. “Essentially, dark patterns are deceptive and manipulative tricks that you see on websites, in apps and other digital products, to get you to do things that you would not otherwise have done,” he explains. “Often the outcome is you buy something that you didn't intend to buy, or you were manipulated into buying it based on a false understanding.”

They may also convince you to part with personal information to access a discount, or even in order to browse (like second-hand designer fashion website The ReaReal) – customer data collection is another key goal for retailers.

Whether or not these dark patterns are unethical depends on how it affects the consumer, he says. “[They are] if you buy something you genuinely didn't intend to buy,” he says. “On Booking.com [it might say] ‘people are looking at this’ or ‘they've got this many left’. They're using every technique in the book. If all those things were factually correct, it's manipulative, but also useful. But where does persuasion stop and trickery start?”

Missguided was also called out for its dark patterns, which include a countdown clock on its discounts
Missguided was also called out for its dark patterns, which include a countdown clock on its discounts

What isn’t in question is that dark patterns take advantage of a time-poor consumer that has an increasingly limited attention span. “When you're tired and fatigued, they tickle you and often you're none the wiser,” Brignull explains.

The vast scale on which dark patterns are used was revealed in a 2019 study from Princeton University which analysed 53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites. One hundred and eighty-three websites were found to use them deceptively. “At best, dark patterns annoy and frustrate users,” it read. “At worst, they can mislead and deceive users, e.g., by causing financial loss, tricking users into giving up vast amounts of personal data, or inducing compulsive and addictive behaviour.” The study also called for “regulators to study, mitigate, and minimise the use of these patterns.”

In the UK, Missguided, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing were also found to be heavy users of dark patterns, according to the Rouge Media study. Meanwhile Mango and Zara were shown to use them least. Asos, H&M, Next, Uniqlo and Urban Outfitters were also found to use dark patterns to a lesser extent.

Ultimately, knowledge is power, and by being aware of how dark patterns are used and the potential they have to affect our decision-making, the more control we have over how we spend our money and with whom we share our personal data.

Have you been swayed by manipulative tools like those mentioned? Let us know in the comments section below

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