Dark UX: Six shady ecommerce strategies your brand should avoid

7th Feb 2018

Levels of consumer trust have plummeted in recent years. When Edelman published its 2017 Trust Barometer it revealed that two-thirds of countries are now “distrusters” – that is, under 50% of their populations now trust businesses, governments, and the media to do what is right.

For businesses, trust has never been in such short supply – or so important. In an age of “fake news”, customers are demanding authenticity. As Tom Chapman, strategy director of Manifesto notes: “The biggest trend we’ve seen [in the last] year is authenticity – people’s desire to know that the things they are looking at are real. For brands, simply making ads that they say are authentic won’t cut it - organisations need to walk the talk and live and breathe their brand values.”

Writing about the trust crisis recently, Forrester’s Ryan Hart predicted that the best companies would tackle the issue head on in 2018. “Brands that own their values will break away from those that merely borrow them,” he suggested. “Brands that deliver CX rooted in values such as Aesop, Muji, and Apple will draw customers while brands that borrow their values and stage their superficial experiences will continue to be called out for all to see across social media.”

Sadly, some brands will continue to put their reputations at risk by attempting to boost sales with shady practices. And new research has lifted the lid on some of the tactics being used – and the brands that are deploying them.

The study, conducted by user experience (UX) agency Sigma, has identified how Dark UX patterns or deliberate design ‘mind tricks’ are being used by some of the biggest retailers online, in a bid to try and make shoppers spend more.

Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma, says: “Whilst we understand that the retail landscape is extremely competitive at the moment – particularly in an age where ecommerce sites can quite literally ‘pop up’ out of nowhere – it’s extremely concerning that big-name brands are using underhand tactics to try and squeeze more money, data or marketing channels out of consumers.

“User experience strategies are supposed to do just that; guide users through a site in the easiest and most transparent way possible. UK retailers would do well to remind themselves of this in future.”

So who has the research identified as offenders – and what Dark UX tactics are they deploying?


One year on from demonstrating an array of questionable design strategies - such as encouraging users to sign up to its Amazon Prime service, without clearly stipulating that the free trial would roll into a monthly payment - Amazon has been singled out once again for underhandedly attempting to upsell insurance products, by the same method.

Having clicked to buy an electrical item, instead of clicking straight through to either the basket or the checkout pages, the site displays a pop-up for breakdown cover, drawing the shopper’s attention towards a yellow “Add to basket” button and away from a greyed out “No thanks” button. Given that we are drawn towards visual elements which stand out from their surroundings, it’s clear that Amazon is aiming to trick the user into adding a – potentially unnecessary – extra purchase.


Research also showed that major electrical retailer AO.com was offering discounts on sale items for shoppers to apply during the checkout process – but that these were later difficult to both find and redeem. Whilst incentivising purchase is not misconduct in itself, AO.com appears to have offered an extra promotion at this crucial stage in the process to tempt shoppers into buying items already on sale, but not clearly signposted such codes in the checkout process. 

Clas Ohlson

Home store, Clas Ohlson, was found to be offering a hardware product on sale – with a bright red ‘clearance’ flash, suggesting that the item may only be available at a low price for a short time only. However, on closer inspection, the offer is actually valid until July 2018; more than six months later. It would seem that the brand is using Dark UX tactics to lure customers into a ‘panic’ purchase and consequently increase sales.


Women’s fashion e-retailer Very was also found to be deploying complex UX during the checkout process to encourage users to sign up for both its own and third-party marketing materials. Two ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ checkboxes – both using vague and convoluted language – were clearly out to serve Very’s business goals, given that the syntax does not at all help the user in deciding whether to tick it.

Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo

The research revealed that both fashion ecommerce sites are capitalising on the ‘fear of missing out’ by urging customers to complete their purchases before a ‘limited’ delivery offer is no longer available. However, it is unclear whether the offer is genuinely limited, or simply a countdown to a regular, daily occurrence. Shoppers may once again be panicked into buying an item at that moment, instead of taking time to reflect on whether it is what they really want or need.


Similarly, marketplace Etsy was also found to be using scare tactics to encourage shoppers to purchase through the illusion of limited stock and competition for a particular product. Underneath the ‘Add to Cart’ button, the store provides live ‘updates’ on the number of products still available. This is particularly provocative for a retailer of ‘handmade’ products, which are likely to be made in small quantities. However, the claim is completely unsubstantiated and may be used deliberately to accelerate purchase.

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By Honester
14th Feb 2018 14:26

Come on, limited stock, closure sales and whatever make the client feel like "being in the right place in the right time" seems to be an everyday tactics of many mid-size and absolute majority of small-sized sellers. Remember the old saying? - What does not kill you makes you stronger. This is not smth to avoid, this is smth to be a bit ashamed about. ;)

Thanks (1)
By Ai2 Software
15th Mar 2018 15:21

Def should look at customer centric B2B ecommence platforms that are built for customers not only for selling. This omni-channel idea will help you avoid these pitfalls. www.ai2.com/b2b-ecommerce

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