The financial implications of Dark UX in the ecommerce sector

The dangers and problematic outcomes of dark UX practices get even pricklier within the ecommerce sector, when financial implications become apparent for the user and financial gain is at the forefront of the company’s agenda.

The financial implications of Dark UX in the ecommerce sector

Following on from last week’s article, we’re already keenly aware of some of the manners in which dark UX presents itself in some of the digital avenues we interact with in our modern lives, and the problem worsens when interacting with the ecommerce industry.

Gamification and confirmshaming are well and truly in the realms of manipulation, but how are companies able to ethically coalesce with usage of dark UX practices in the ecommerce industry, where realistically there are deep financial implications for the misdirection and manipulation of their users?

The tactics used are underhanded and devious in their application, and it stems from the overwhelming desire from these companies to benefit from the short-term gains that these practices achieve, whilst ignoring the long-term sacrifices of reduced customer trust, brand loyalty and company reputation.

The paths that these companies take to shatter the expectations are varied, but all leave the customer feeling a variety of negative emotions that are inherently related to their user experience. Frustrated, dejected, jaded… the list goes on.

There are no doubts in our minds that you’ve likely experienced all these tactics in the past, but to give them clarity in your mind, here are just a few examples of the patterns that these companies abuse on a regular basis.

Hidden Costs

We’ve all been in this exact position before: finally getting to the checkout option, only to be blindsided as the final price tally is noticeably higher than what you originally saw. What’s the service fee for? Why is the delivery fee so ridiculously high?

You’re confused as to where all of these additional costs have come from, but you’ve made it this far through the often-arduous purchasing process, so you may as well just bite the bullet and incur these extra costs.

Hidden costs are a dark UX practice that are becoming increasingly more egregious as time goes on, as companies continue to see just how far they can stretch swindling their customers out of excess money beyond the costs of the product they’re buying.

In these scenarios with companies such as Ticketmaster, users often find themselves enticed by very reasonable prices, only for the hidden costs to shatter the illusion originally implied by the seller.

Credit: Reddit

This is problematic for a variety of reasons: it incurs users to spend more money than they originally intended, and the lasting impression of these extra costs delegitimises the company’s moral standing in the eyes of the user.

Ticketmaster have been seen as one of the biggest figureheads of this strategy in recent years, aided in no small part by their relative monopoly over the live music ticket industry. If users are presented with these additional hidden costs but there are no alternative providers for the service they desire, what else are they able to do? It’s effectively equivalent to an apex predator being able to feed on their prey with ease!

Although these fees are oftentimes likely an unavoidable part of the transaction process, the companies’ intentional hiding of them until the last possible moment is inherently predatory, and a shining example of the manipulation of users and their finances that dark UX practices uphold.

Roach Motel

A ‘roach motel’, adopted from the name of a trap used to catch cockroaches, is another frustrating usage of dark UX in the ecommerce sector. It’s a painfully apt metaphor that compares the user to a common pest. So much for user-centric design!

Companies make the process of signing up to a subscription service almost too easy, only for the process of exiting it to be a wholly exasperating and painful experience. Trying to locate the simple option to unsubscribe feels more like finding a needle in a haystack, and that’s the exact intention that it’s been developed with.

The process has been designed at its core to make the user uncomfortable, incorporating other dark UX practices such as confirmshaming to make the process even more difficult. The company effectively desires to make their users too frustrated to continue hunting for this option to unsubscribe, thus they bite the bullet on another month’s payment.

But what good is this user retention if the company is effectively holding them hostage? Why would these companies not instead attempt to nurture their users with high-quality customer experience to make them feel positively about subscribing to the service? The disconnect and divide between short-term and long-term gains become truly apparent here with the loss of customer trust.

Attempting to permanently close an Amazon account is a particularly well-known example of this practice, one that the company only changed after years of complains this year!

Credit: Crobox

The option to close your account was hidden deep within a huge directory of help and customer service options, and completely too difficult for users to find naturally without annoyed Google searches to find out how. Quality UX shouldn’t require the assistance of outside influences just to discover how to stop using a service!

Forced Continuity

Forced continuity is a practice that we can guarantee the vast majority of users have been susceptible to at some point, much to our own annoyance! Harry Brignull defines the practice as:

“When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning. You are then not given an easy way to cancel the automatic renewal”

We can see from that definition that the practice can oftentimes work in conjunction with a roach motel, as they work together to provide users with the subscription fiasco of their worst nightmares.

This situation is one that anyone can be prone to become a victim of: free trials that require the user to input their financial details with the intention to charge for the service once the free trial ends. The company place a disclaimer that this will happen, so everything is ethically sound, right?

But why does the user’s debit card information need to be input for a free trial in the first place? Where is the user’s obligation to continue using the service once the period expires?

The reality is that it’s an unnecessary step: a free trial should be to see if you truly enjoy and connect with a product, not a written agreement that you will eventually start to pay for the service.

Credit: David Martinson

Forced continuity preys on human nature in the sense that users are liable to forgetting about these free trials (some can last for months!) only to be saddled with extra charges for services that they had no intention of paying for.

An unexpected monetary transaction is bound to sting anyone just a little, but depending on the service’s price, as well as how long of a subscription that the forced continuity sets the user up for, this can prove how making usage of these dark UX practices could have potentially damaging financial ramifications for the user.

When peering at them through an ecommerce lens, it’s clearly apparent that the dark UX practices employed by these modern companies have more detrimental effects than just annoyance and frustration.

The wider implications that these practices can have on manipulating users into actions that may have troubling effects on them – financial difficulty and mental stress – seem irrelevant to the companies in question, as they promote short term profit and gain.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has spent time ramping up enforcement against practices in the vein of roach motels in an effort to provide more transparency for the user in subscription scenarios, stating:

“The FTC’s policy statement puts companies on notice that they will face legal action if their sign-up process fails to provide clear, up-front information, obtain consumers’ informed consent, and make cancellation easy.”  

The intervention of governing legal bodies opens up a multitude of questions: what’s the ethicality, or even legality of these practices? Is it completely morally unjust to make use of these practices, even when they are so commonly used in digital UX environments? Can UX design even be monitored to such an extent that prevents this from happening?

The final article aims to dive into these questions surrounding the ethical, moral and legal wilderness surrounding the dark UX practices that we’ve investigated, thinking about whether these grey areas can ever truly be made transparently clear to users, companies and governing legal bodies.

Keep an eye out for the next article on the MadeFor. website!

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