Episode 20

Dark Patterns

00:00:00
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00:22:46

November 24th, 2020

22 mins 46 secs

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About this Episode

Psychology plays an important part in business no matter what business you’re in or how you’re getting sales. The best tactics to convince us to spend money are the ones we’re not aware of. Retail stores have been using music, scents, and merchandising to get us to spend more money for decades if not centuries. Those tactics online now have a name and its Dark Patterns. Jon explain just what Dark Patterns are and why your brand should avoid using them.

Read more about Dark Patterns:
https://thegood.com/insights/dark-pattern-ecommerce-ux-design/

Transcription:
Ryan:
Jon, psychology plays an important part in business, no matter what business you're in and how you're getting the sales. Now, the best tactics to convince us to spend money are the ones we're not really aware of. And retail has been doing this probably for hundreds of years, even though I haven't been involved in it, using music's sense merchandising of how they put products on the shelves to get us to spend more money. And all of that research and data is out there for the taking, but I would venture a guess that most of the public is unaware of actually what's happening in those retail environments to commit us to spend money. When it comes to e-Commerce though, and the way our economy is moving to transacting online, I'm finding a lot of these "psychology tactics" are much more in your face, or at least I'm more aware of them.
And maybe it's because I'm spending too much time in front of my computer talking to e-Commerce business owners and looking at e-Commerce sites. But I see it all the time, and a lot of times it just bugs me and you have a term for it called dark patterns. And that's a new term to me, but probably not to you because you work in the CRO world, but you recently mentioned it on LinkedIn. And I wanted to learn more about it because it fascinates me, the intricacies of psychology because studying sales my whole life and now having a retail store with my wife, it's just always there. And I think most of them I see online are garbage, some plugins on Shopify sites that maybe should never have been put on in the first place, but I want to learn about dark patterns. And I learned from one of the best in the world, who should be you.

Jon:
Awesome.

Ryan:
It sounds evil, but I just want to know more. How do we use our powers for good?

Jon:
I'm looking forward to it.

Ryan:
Jon, why don't you just take a moment and give me a high level of what do you mean when you say dark patterns when it comes to e-Commerce and e-Commerce sites?

Jon:
So when I talk about dark patterns, what I'm talking about is similar to, if you think about hacking and in a way that there's white hat and black hat, right. And black hat hacking is when you're doing something intentionally for a negative outcome, it might be a benefit to somebody like it's going to be benefits to the hacker, but you're hurting somebody in that process or you're creating a problem in that process. Where a white hat hacker is really just trying to help. They're trying to do things for positive. Maybe they're looking for bugs, but they're going to report them to the software maker before they do anything to exploit it. So you think about that. Exploitation is really what comes in here to my head when I think about this more than anything else. So, what we're talking about here today is really when an e-Commerce store makes something difficult because they want to influence the outcome that they're trying to do.
So whether that's something through psychology, you talked about in a retail environment, the type of music they play in the background that calms people down, or how they price, where they make things $2 and 99 cents instead of $3, right? You start thinking about all these psychology tricks that come at play well in e-Commerce there's all those psychology tricks. Plus there are ways to actually increase barriers intentionally on a website so that the consumer can't take the action that they're trying to take, instead, you've made it more difficult. Some examples of this really easy one, an email pop-up pops up when you come to the site to sign up for email lists and there's no way to close it. So the only way you can get back to what you were trying to do is to give them your email address, or I like to call this negative intent shaming.
So where the button in that pop-up says something like, no, I don't like discounts or I don't like saving money, right? There's all these types of dark patterns. And it can go even more, really sinister and you make it just impossible to unsubscribe without calling, right? So for years, and it may still be this way, but Skype was an amazing case study of this, where they would claim massive retention rates, but their user rate was super low and usage. And the only reason they had retention rates that were so impressive is because the only way to actually cancel and delete your Skype account was to call a phone number in the U.S. So, if you're an international user where Skype was way more prevalent than in the States, you had to call international, talk to somebody in English only, and say, I need to cancel my Skype account.
Please delete it from your servers. Why won't you just do that when a click of a button? So this is a good example of a dark pattern where the brand really valued retention, so they made it near impossible, right up, maybe to that legal limit. And one of the things you saw on LinkedIn was I had posted to an article it had run in what's called The Hustle, which is a great entrepreneur email. If you're no signed up for a free email, it comes out every morning, just around entrepreneurship and the tech industry and whatnot. And they were saying that there's new legislation coming in that is all about making these dark patterns illegal. And that most things need to be self-service, and it shouldn't be a challenge. So that's really where I was going with this was not only is this just bad to do and lead to a horrible brand image in the longterm, but it's also going to become illegal fairly soon. And I hope it's sooner than later, I have my doubts that would happen anytime in the near future, but I hope it's sooner than later.

Ryan:
So could you also bundle in to that broad, I guess I would probably try to broaden dark patterns a little bit and say it also includes what people think is helping from a psychological perspective, but it's actually just stupid. Well, one of my, I guess, favorite, least favorite was the one that I noticed the most is there's a plug-in on a lot of sites that says, Oh, little Jimmy just bought the pink t-shirt and Oh, look over here, Susie just bought this vase. And Oh, people are buying all over on the site and I can go to some sites and I've seen maybe the analytics behind the scenes and maybe some of my audit. And I know for a fact, there's no way that five people just bought something in the 30 seconds I was on their site.

Jon:
That's exactly it. Fake social proof is a great example of this, right? So it's having a random number of view, people are viewing this product right now, having X number of people who just bought this product from wherever in the world. And consumers always distrust that now, because it's been abused. Right. But it's a dark pattern because what are they trying to do? They're trying to influence your psychology around social proof and having fear of missing out. And you want what everyone else wants and, Oh, well, if so-and-so just bought that product, then it's probably legit and I should buy it too. And we see this more and more, a really good example is well, and we're getting through a lot of good examples. I could go on for days for examples, but another great example is a fake countdown timer, right?
They're introducing scarcity, but it's false scarcity. What I mean by that is sign up within the next five minutes and we'll give you something or okay, we've talked about this in other shows, we did a discounting episode, not too long ago. And you were talking about how your wife just leaves products in the cart, abandons the cart, waits 24 hours and knows there's the discount email coming. You know that that clock is no good. Okay. Reminds me of the old TV commercials call within the next five minutes and you get this free bonus. They have no idea when that commercial is going to run, down to the minute, they don't know. And if you think about it, especially when you see these on news stations, right? News stations have somewhat of a cadence for ad timing, but it's never down to the second, to down to the minute.
So there's no way you could start a clock and say in five minutes, right? I guarantee you, if you called them in a week, they'd give you that same price. And it's the exact same thing happening here where there's a whole bunch of these dark patterns that are playing on people's psychology or making it really complicated for them to actually take an action they want to do in order to benefit the brand.

Ryan:
So what we're not talking about though, is actually having your inventory show on the siting. I actually only have three of these left because Amazon, I see doing that. And based on some of my experience in Amazon, on my brands, I feel the trust that at this point they might change, but that's not what I'm talking about as far as scarcity.

Jon:
No.

Ryan:
Okay. It's the manipulation of faking scarcity or faking a countdown timer.

Jon:
Yes, exactly. Now, if you're just always going to say that there's only three of these left, in order to have scarcity when none exists, then that's a dark pattern. But if you're actually trying to help the consumer, get the product they want and know that, Hey, if you don't buy it, now you're going to have to wait for the next batch to come in. And that could be six weeks or whatever. Right. Then I would put that under the white hat, right. You're really trying to help people and you're giving them more information to make a decision. And that's why this is such an interesting topic. How do you prove what's dark and what's not? Right. If you look at a brand, you mentioned, well, I've had experiences with Amazon. I trust that based on my experiences there. But if you just saw that on some random new e-Comm site that you've never been to before, how do you trust that for sure. How do you know for sure that, that's the reality?

Ryan:
I personally would have trouble with that. Just knowing as much as I do about e-Comm.

Jon:
Yeah. You've been burned before, right. There was a great Twitter thread, a few weeks back. It was what is one thing about industry that you work in that the general public doesn't know? And this falls under for e-Commerce that I saw somebody posted, well, I run an e-Commerce brand. And we tell people our products are selling out, when they're not. I was like, okay, well, there you go. That's a dark pattern, right?

Ryan:
Yeah. Happens often.

Ryan:
Obviously we don't like them. And I would believe they're hurting brands to a degree, but I bet you probably have some data about how does some of these products that you've seen actually do opposite of what this business owner probably intended for it to do, this countdown timer or, Hey, everybody's buying this all over the world. You need to buy now.

Jon:
Right.

Ryan:
Do you see it actually hurting the conversion rate?

Jon:
Well, I will tell you this, first of all, does it work for the initial conversion? Sometimes, perhaps, right? It might, probably not as well as people think, because if you have to get to that level to get people to buy, you probably have other systemic issues that you need to solve. A product issue, a pricing issue, a brand trust issue, right? There's a lot of other things that you should work on solving instead of trying to take the shortcut. So let's say you get that original purchase, right. Then the person comes back to buy again and they notice that, okay, well now I've got another countdown timer, or maybe it happens where like your wife, you wait that timer out every time. And you know, it's not happy now you trust that brand a little less, right? So I would say that on the first purchase, it might work, but for the longer term customer lifetime value growth, and maybe a brand perception angle, no, it's not going to work. I argue that it's going to hurt you more in the longterm.

Ryan:
Yeah, I guess an argument could be made based on that. But if you only get one sale ever you're selling mattresses, you don't care if they ever come back.

Jon:
Boom. That's a great example, right? A mattress store, you go to any mattress store. They're always having the best sale ever, always. And you walk into a mattress store, I guarantee you, you're not going to pay the price that's listed there. You can talk them down because they're going to give you a price that is just a random price. And you're going to be able to go in and just say, okay, well, last week it was this other price or, Hey, well, what if I give you a $100 less? And they're probably be like, okay. Yeah, that's true. If the goal is to get that first sale and that's it at all costs, and you're never going to sell to them again. And you just don't care about your brand over the longer term of, with that customer or even your reputation perhaps. Then I would argue sure. Have at it. Still, not ethical or moral in my point of view. But if you don't want to grow a sustainable brand and revenue, then have at it.

Ryan:
Yeah. And I would argue though, that even if that is unethical, not great, your business won't be around anyway, because people are going to see through it more and more, I think. And then the marketing costs of getting traffic to your site, necessitates at this point, a lifetime value on a customer.

Jon:
Right.

Ryan:
If you're not playing the lifetime value game in e-Commerce, I don't think you're going to be hearing from me and Jon in a couple of years. Because you won't be in commerce at the end of the day. You've got to have that. No matter if you're a retailer or if you're a brand that's selling through retailers and on your own site, you have to have a plan for selling to that customer multiple times in the future.

Jon:
Right, right.

Ryan:
Building trust, obviously we focus on that on both of our ends of marketing constantly and dark patterns can interrupt that even if it's short-term creates commercial rate increase, but are there some areas in this that you say are valuable on both of those counts? Like increases conversion rates and while some people might think this is maybe in that space, it actually does good as far as building the lifetime value as well.

Jon:
Well, I would say that if your intent is to put up a barrier for the consumer, that there's no positive, they can come of that in my point of view, right? People are at your site because they're there to complete a task, right. They think that your product or service can help them complete that task. And now if you are trying to actively prevent them from completing the task, they want to complete only because you want them to complete the tasks you want them to do. There's no positive that's going to come out of that. Right. For instance, you're in a checkout and the default check is yes, subscribe email list, right. How many times do people just leave that checked, right. Or you use confusing language check here to not receive our emails lists each week.

Ryan:
I love that example of yours. Like, wait, what do I... Is it checked?

Jon:
Exactly. Yeah. All of that stuff is where I end up getting really, really frustrated. And when I see that stuff often, quite honestly, I choose not to work with that brand. I just say we're not a good fit because our mission to remove all of these bad online experiences is not going to be further long by working with them because they don't really want to help the consumer. Right. Maybe it's a mistake if there's one of them or maybe they got some bad advice at some point, if it's just one thing that's happening, or they using an app that makes it too easy to do that. Like one of those purchase apps you were talking about that come up out of the corner and telling you that somebody purchased recently, but they didn't.
But I would say, at that point there's really not anything I can do to change the ethics of that company. And that's, I think what this really comes down to. And there's too many brands out there that want to help consumers and do the right thing that they don't... We don't need to work with the brands who are only just trying to use psychology to trick people into purchasing.

Ryan:
Yeah. I think both of us have been as long enough. We know there's a lot of people in our industry that loves selling some snake oil and there are a lot of them giving bad advice and I come across constantly. So that's why my mission's probably not as holistic or maybe pretty as yours. I'll say mine is like, I just want to put all my competitors out of business that are selling snake oil and then sell [crosstalk 00:17:04] behind me.

Jon:
Exactly.

Ryan:
Save e-Comm brands from stupid advice.

Jon:
Hey, that's a good moral lesson in that though. Right? Just making it happen. Right. And I think the reality is, is you guys have won it Logical Position, and you've gotten as big as you have because of the way you treat people and handle these accounts. Right. You would never be serving 6,000 clients if you tried all these tricks because there would be a handful of people out there who would be okay with it. But the vast majority of brands are good. And I wholeheartedly believe that, but unfortunately, what do they say? That one bad Apple spoils the whole bunch. Is that the phrase?

Ryan:
Yeah. At least it does on my phone.

Jon:
Yeah. I've been apple picking once when I was a kid maybe, but I can't claim to have much farm experience.

Ryan:
So, just as in most things in business, as long as you filter through some type of lens that says, is this something I would be comfortable with my mom getting or being presented with like, Hey, if I'm lying that somebody is checking out and there's an app for that. Why on earth would it make sense for me to put it on there? If I know that, Hey, this might convince my mom to buy something she doesn't need and be a good human at the end of the day. If you do that as a business owner with an e-Comm site, you're not going to be putting these things on there to do this. And hopefully we're going to help you put your competitors out of business who are trying to do those things.

Jon:
Well, I think that's a great lens to put this through the mom test, right. Be thinking about this. If you are doing something that you wouldn't want done to your mom. Then don't do it. Right. And I think that, that's a really good way to look at this. If it would trick your mom into doing something that she really didn't want to do, then just get rid of it. Would you want your mom automatically opting into this privacy statement or would you want your mom to automatically get these emails? And you know she'd be frustrated if she just wants to purchase a product. And all of a sudden was getting marketing emails every day. Or if she got tricked into doing an upsell on a product, because it was default added to the cart, the highest, most expensive shipping option was chosen when there were way cheaper options.
There's a lot of things like that that happen all the time. And the problem is, it's really something that would frustrate most people. But I think I see it more than probably the casual online shopper, but I also have [inaudible 00:19:40] and obligation to resolve those problems when I see them as much as possible.

Ryan:
Yeah. And if you do convert optimization, right, you don't need them.

Jon:
Right.

Ryan:
And that's the crazy thing. You don't need gimmicks, if you've got a solid business, good products, and you've worked with Jon, or if you're not quite to Jon's level, you're doing just good things at the end of the day. And I think the example of shipping is a phenomenal one that I didn't even think about until you said it that as a business owner, you're like, Hey, shipping, we make margin on this shipping or not this shipping. And we have free shipping here or not, but you can just check this one because it just makes sense maybe from a business perspective where is, we need more margin here because we're giving it up here. But at the end of the day, if you just do what is right, that you would want done to you, you've got that potential for customer lifetime value.

Jon:
Right.

Ryan:
And that's where your profit can come from.

Jon:
Yeah. I really like your approach of, if you've wouldn't do it to your mom, don't do it on your set. I think that's great. I wholeheartedly believe in that. And I think all of these things would fall under that. Right. Would you really want to do face fake scarcity and make your mom believe there's only one item left when there's not?

Ryan:
I'll tell you your mom, she's an idiot that she doesn't want to save money. I know my mom wants to save money, believe me. I'm not going to call her an idiot for not-

Jon:
Exactly. She doesn't want your emails. That's why she's clicking no. But...

Ryan:
Yep.

Jon:
Yeah. Well, I think this has been great conversation though.

Ryan:
Yeah. Me too. So is there anything anybody needs to know that we haven't touched on when it comes to dark patterns or things you can or might do to your site even by accident that you just want to be aware of?

Jon:
Yeah. I would think the first thing you should do when you add any app from the Shopify app store or any of those is give it a good look. Don't just use it because you see a competitor using it. Don't just assume they have positive intent here, go install it and then really dig in. Do some user testing on it, get understanding from consumers. Is it really being helpful for them or is it causing a another barrier in their road to conversion? And if it is ask yourself, am I putting up that barrier because it's better for me, or am I putting up that barrier unnecessarily? And it's actually making it hard for them to complete the purchase, which is what you ultimately want. And I have yet to hear an example that fits into both of those. Again, it's either black or white, it's either white hat or black hat, and there's really nothing in between that I can find. And if somebody listening to this has a great example of that. Please let me know. I would love to have some good examples of that.

Ryan:
Put it on LinkedIn, share it with Jon, so we can all see.

Jon:
Yeah. Tag Ryan and I.

Ryan:
Well, thanks Jon. I appreciate you giving me an education and anybody else's listening for that because it's very helpful.

Jon:
Awesome. Thanks Ryan. Appreciate the conversation.

Ryan:
Thank you.