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Black Friday: what are “dark patterns”, these manipulative techniques to make you buy?

“Only 3 products left in stock”, pre-selected options, hidden subscriptions… For consumers, Black Friday can sometimes seem like a digital wild west.

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Black Friday: what are “dark patterns”, these manipulative techniques to make you buy?

“Only 3 products left in stock”, pre-selected options, hidden subscriptions… For consumers, Black Friday can sometimes seem like a digital wild west. The fault, among other things, of all these messages or misleading or even manipulative techniques which pepper the purchasing process on most platforms. Practices brought together under the term “dark patterns”, an Anglicism with no real equivalent in the language of Molière, which can be literally translated as “dark patterns”. If you have already been confronted with these methods, they prove even more common and insidious during Black Friday - which this year falls on Friday November 24 - where the search for a good deal can push consumers to be less careful, at the risk of having unpleasant surprises.

A term invented in 2010 by the designer specializing in digital interface design Harry Brignull, “dark patterns” appeared this year among the scams faced by customs and the general directorate for competition, consumption and the repression of fraud (DGCCRF) call to be wary during “Black Friday”. “Before any purchase or validation of baskets for online purchases, consumers are invited to check the characteristics and terms of sale of the good or product”, recommend the two directions, inviting them to “avoid hasty purchases” and not to let it be “trapped by dark patterns”. The DGCCRF even published content dedicated to them at the beginning of the month on its site with examples and advice on how to avoid the traps they pose. It must be said that these are particularly common: a recent study by the European Commission has in fact identified “dark patterns” on 97% of the 75 most popular sites in the EU.

Behind this rather worrying name hide “manipulations in the very design of the services that we use, to make the user make choices, of which he is not aware”, summarized in 2018 in our columns Albert Moukheiber, doctor in neuroscience, psychologist and debate leader on ethical design with the Chiasma Paris association. A formulation that may seem vague, but that is because it encompasses lots of different practices, which the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation (DITP) classifies into three categories, depending on the objective they pursue: “ limit capacity for action”, “manipulate attention and preferences” or “inflate desirability and create urgency”.

Also read: Black Friday 2023: tips to avoid scams

As part of Black Friday - which doubles as Cyber ​​Monday next Monday - one of the most widespread techniques is to display messages aimed at creating a sense of urgency, in order to increase the desirability of products. This can take the form of countdowns before the end of a promotion, counting the number of items remaining in stock, or the number of Internet users viewing the same page. “We are playing here on haste, or on social influence,” explains Séverine Erhel, lecturer in cognitive psychology and ergonomics at Rennes 2 University. “It is important to note that these practices are not similar to dark patterns only if they are based on false information,” notes the DITP. However, a 2019 US study by researchers at Princeton and Chicago Universities estimated that nearly 40% of countdown timers and limited stock messages were false.

Among the other most common deceptive methods during a commercial period like Black Friday, we can also cite options or services surreptitiously added to your basket, without the buyer realizing it or specified just before payment. “The technique is betting on the fact that you will not realize it or, as you have already spent a lot of time on your purchase, that you will give up going back to remove what you do not want,” explains the DGCCRF, which specifies that this practice is completely illegal in France and in the European Union. In the same vein, subscriptions hidden behind a free period are also emblematic of “dark patterns”. As are the pre-selected options when arriving on a page, consumers tend to opt for the default option.

“There is a plethora of dark patterns, so much so that it is difficult to map them all,” notes Séverine Erhel. Another example: techniques aimed at hindering consumers’ freedom of action, for example by making “refuse” buttons less visible and highlighting the choices expected by the seller. The example of the Prime service registration button on Amazon is typical of this interface manipulation, although legal. Other processes are intended to force the consumer to accept options, through repeated questions or pop-up windows or account creation suggestions. “The consumer, motivated by their final objective, will then be more able to accept, if only to be able to move forward with their purchase,” observes the DITP. The opposite case can also occur: that is to say, steps are constantly added to abandon the action in progress, and thus push the Internet user to complete their purchase.

So how can we avoid these (countless) pitfalls? “Don’t be rushed, and look twice before clicking,” simply replies Karl Pineau, director of the Media Design Lab at the Nantes Atlantique Design School. Taking your time is also the main advice from the DGCCRF, in particular “to check the characteristics of what you are buying, the delivery conditions, etc..” The Fraud Repression also advises not to click “too quickly on a link or a button” and to always check “your shopping basket before going to payment”. Séverine Erhel otherwise advises “to think in advance about what you want to buy”, to avoid ending up at the end with a basket that is much fuller than expected. It must also be borne in mind that the consumer has, except in special cases, a right of withdrawal of at least 14 days from the date of delivery.

More than a story of precautions that Internet users must take, “dark patterns” are rather a question of regulation, according to the experts interviewed by Le Figaro. “We must move forward on this subject to propose regulations that are existing and clear,” calls for Séverine Erhel. The European Digital Services Act (DSA), which came into force for the largest platforms on August 25 - it will be for others in February 2024 -, has prohibited the use by online platforms of misleading or manipulative interfaces . “But what do we include in these dark patterns?” asks Karl Pineau, also a teacher-researcher in information and communication sciences. The European Commission's definition includes deceptive online commercial practices to the detriment of the user and which are carried out via the interface. But couldn't we extend it to everything that concerns the user's persuasion, that is to say all these interfaces whose objective is to make you accept something, without there really being of deception?” The debate has only just begun.

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