Are major retailers using dark UX to trick customers into spending?

Major retailers like Amazon and River Island may be using the dark arts to bully customers into giving up their personal data or spending more, according to new research from user experience UX) agency, Sigma.

As Christmas approaches and brings with it some of the busiest shopping days of the year, new research has revealed retailers including Amazon, River Island, and Just Fab are using what are known as dark UX methods – crafting their interfaces to trick users – to boost sales.

Research conducted by user experience (UX) agency Sigma evaluates the hidden strategies that some brands are using on their mobile sites to boost sales, some of which fall in a moral grey area as dark UX.

Amazon was found to be encouraging users to sign up to its Amazon Prime service without stipulating clearly that the free trial would roll into a monthly payment of £7.99. The mobile site contains a yellow button in the checkout process which has the text ‘FREE one-day delivery – pay later’ at the checkout, confusing users into signing up to a service without knowing a subscription charge will be taken monthly when the 30-day free trial period ends, as mentioned in the small print. The e-commerce behemoth has since then added the facts in fine print.

Women’s fashion e-tailer Just Fab was also found to be using dark UX scare tactics to convince users to sign up to its subscription service. The brand advertises special offers for ‘VIP members’ only, and displays a countdown graphic for these discounts on the site. It isn’t clear that if by signing up to be a VIP member customers will be charged £35 on a monthly basis.

But it wasn’t just money that brands are trying to squeeze out of customers. River Island was found to be prioritising data collection over user experience, not allowing shoppers to checkout without going through a lengthy process of creating an account, where data such as their email address is collected.

Commenting on the findings, Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma, said: “Our research has really shone a light on the dark side of user experience. Brands simply shouldn’t be using these unethical tactics to make more money, or collect data.

“UX principles exist to simplify the user journey for customers, not to trick them into unknowingly signing up to expensive subscriptions or pressuring them to let go of their personal information. As we only looked at a handful of big brands in our research, we fear that this could be a common problem across the board and increasing in popularity,” she said. Brands may be under increasing pressure to boost sales over the festive period, but Stephenson believes there are ethical ways to achieve that. It starts by naming and shaming UX abusers.

“By revealing how some businesses are making cash using unethical methods, we hope they take ownership of this issue and that others are deterred from being tempted down the same path.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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