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Dark UX: The Underbelly of eCommerce

Last year Sigma – a user experience agency – evaluated the hidden strategies that some brands used in order to boost sales on their sites during the Christmas period, and this year they have decided to revisit the topic.

Looking again at the tactics and tricks that companies use on their websites around Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas and the January sales, Sigma has created a new report to show how things have developed…

What Is Dark Ux?

Dark UX describes the practice of designing an eCommerce website in order to trick the customer into buying goods or signing up for services that they do not need, and that they might not want.

Why Is It Used?

Companies use Dark UX in order to make more profit from their customers either by:

  • Making an extra sale
  • Subscribing them to extra services
  • Adding more names to a mailing list
  • Accruing more private data to either use or sell

Sites that employ Dark UX tactics are intentionally designed to persuade customers to do what the company wants them to do – putting the brands profits before the customers needs.

For those who are tech savvy, Dark UX strategies may seem easy enough to avoid. However, for the elderly and those who are less proficient with a computer or with the language these tricks put them in a vulnerable place, creating confusion and even distress.

Dark UX tactics include:

  • The manipulative use of colour theory
  • Using vague micro-copy that misdirects and manipulates
  • Well disguised adverts
  • Adding extra items into the users basket
  • Making it difficult to cancel a subscription
  • Tricking users to share information that they did not intent to

These tactics are distinguishable from marketing, as they knowingly trick the user. Chris Bush, Head of Experience Design at Sigma explains that,

“People might have a negative experience on a website because of bad user experience design, whereas dark (UX) patterns are premeditated – they are well thought out and based on behavioural psychology.”

Examples of Dark UX


Amazon gives us a good example of Dark UX using manipulative colour theory.

When clicking to buy an item on their site, Amazon does not take you directly to the checkout, instead an unprompted pop-up appears, offering insurance for the selected product.

amazon dark ux

This pop-up uses Dark UX because it is designed to draw your attention to the ‘Add to Basket’ button – which is in yellow and is highly defined – and away from the ‘No Thanks’ button which is less noticeable in pale grey.

Amazon featured in Sigma’s previous study, where they were singled out for tricking users to sign up to Amazon Prime, without making it clear that the free trial automatically rolls into a monthly payment.

Many charities have also been chastised for using similar tricks, where they design the checkout process to be confusing in order to trick users into adding a donation.


An example of vague micro-copy can be found at very.co.uk, which constructs confusing sentences that use convoluted language to confuse customers so that they join the mailing list.

Very.co.uk Dark UX example

In addition to the copy itself, the two tick boxes require opposite prompts, with one being an opt-in and the other an opt-out, which is another tactic that is used to confuse the customer into doing what is good for the business.

Many companies are guilty of creating a false sense of urgency in their customers by using limited duration sales and offers that are highlighted with a countdown clock. However many of these limited time offers are not legitimate.

When Sigma visited these sites on multiple occasions the offers were still available outside of the original time limit. This Dark UX trick capitalises on the ‘fear of missing out’, and Sigma’s report highlights fashion retailers Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo for their misleading offers.


As well as false time limits, Etsy gives an example of false ‘scarcity’.

Etsy Dark UX

In order to encourage sales the site clearly states when an item is ‘Almost Gone’ adding that ‘There’s only 1 left!’. Yet, most items on Etsy are either made to order or customised for each client, meaning that the copy may trick potential customers into making a quick decision about the purchase even though there is no imminent threat of the item running out.

The Promo Code Trick

Other sites were found to offer further discounts or offers with a promotional code that doesn’t exist, or that is extremely hard to find. For many sites it seems that, in fact, there is no promo code.

AO dark UX promo code

For those that do provide a code, the site is often designed so that the customer has to work hard to remember and input the code totally unprompted, and, on top of that, many sites are designed so that the promo code entry box is so subtle as to not serve as a prompt.

The Sigma Report

Commenting on the findings, Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma, said that,

“Whilst we understand that the retail landscape is extremely competitive at the moment – particularly in an age where e-commerce 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.”

“We had hoped to see an improvement on the use of Dark UX patterns since completing a similar analysis last year. However, it seems that these unethical practices are still very much in place. The examples listed above are just a brief cross-section of what we know is happening across the board – not just in retail, but in the leisure, travel and third sectors, too.”

“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.”

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Alice Page

Digital Project Manager

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