Online retail and deceptive UX patterns: One year on...

Headshot of Simon Wissink

Account Director

6 minute read

The Christmas period and January sales are undoubtedly the busiest and most important time of the year for the retail industry. Are the deceptive patterns back again this year?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday certainly herald the beginning of Christmas shopping and the advent of these ‘pre-season’ sales continues to grow year on year in the UK, with more shoppers going online to avoid the bad weather and beat the crowds. Furthermore, the Centre for Retail Research reported that the 2017 online sales alone accounted for £.1.15 billion spent over the weekend.

Last year, we published some thoughts called 'Customer Experience is for life, not just for Christmas', considering the way in which design and user experience techniques influenced online shopping behaviour. We were concerned to see some retailers using deceptive UX patterns to trick customers into buying goods or signing up for services they may not have wanted.

Deceptive patterns are not at all poor design by mere negligence. They are intended to persuade and dissuade consumers in ways that benefit the brand rather than the user. In our research, we found some retailers using colour theory and vague micro-copy to misdirect and manipulate their users. In this respect, we questioned the ethics around such deceptive patterns and the approach retailers take regarding short-term sales over longer-term, more valued customer relationships and satisfaction.

Whilst the intention of the report was never about targeting specific brands, we were pleased to see it generated a wealth of commentary and interesting feedback within the UX, CRO and Marketing communities.

The onus is more and more on the general public to be rigorous in checking exactly what they are signing up to

Jane Frost, Market Research Society

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

Photo of Chris Bush

Chris Bush, Head of Experience Design, Nexer

Our work was also featured and discussed on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” consumer programme and BBC One’s “Rip Off Britain”

However, one year on from contributing to this debate, we are still seeing retailers using deceptive patterns on their websites. Amazon featured in our report and demonstrated an array of questionable design strategies. Take the example below, we clicked to buy a television and, instead of clicking through straight to either the basket or the checkout pages, a breakdown cover product pop-up appeared, drawing our attention towards a yellow “Add to basket” button and away from a greyed out “No thanks” button.

A screenshot of Amazon's checkout process offering breakdown cover

We have seen similar techniques creep into the charity sector, particularly around giving and donations. It’s understandable, as charities battle for donations but the design techniques verge on deceptive patterns. London Zoo poses a confusing choice to customers during the final stage of purchasing tickets. Customers are forced to click either of the two options, “Add to basket without donation” or “Add to basket with donation”. Both are given equal weighting, with the latter option to the right; a more place for users to proceed. Furthermore, it's also not instantly clear how much the user would be donating.

This current implementation is somewhat improved from an earlier rendition, as shown below, where users are further confused with a backwards arrow should they wish to continue without a donation, yet we would argue that this should be removed all together, as it does not help the customer achieve their goal and only serves to confuse and cause pressure during the checkout process.

A screenshot of the London Zoo website showing the donation shopping basket

London Zoo's original implementation encouraging the user to select the option to the right

A screenshot of the London Zoo website showing the donation options

London Zoo's new implementation - however there is still much room for improvement

Micro-copy is so important in reassuring users and making them aware of exactly what they are signing up for. Our latest research found using vague and convoluted language during their checkout process.

A screenshot of the Very website

The two checkboxes are contradictory, one is opt-in and the other is an opt-out action. The first checkbox is particularly confusing and clearly out to serve Very’s business goals; the syntax does not at all help the user in deciding whether to tick it. The action referenced in the first phrase relates to further down the page, rather than that which is immediately in question. For example, it would be much easier for the user to understand were it phrased, “Please tick here if you DO NOT want to receive updates by text and email from Very about discounts, money off and new products”.

As with our report last year too, we found companies such as BooHoo and PrettyLittleThing using limited duration as a means of encouraging users to purchase items in a given time frame.

A screenshot of the PrettyLittleThing website
A screenshot of the BooHoo website

We would question the legitimacy of these sales tactics - visiting both sites on multiple occasions revealed that these offers are available for longer than the stated duration. Similarly, Clas Ohlson offer items in a clearance sale, yet state that the sale price is valid for over seven months.

A screenshot of the clas ohlson website

These issues can mislead the user and the limited duration tactic itself puts pressure on them to buy anything in order to achieve the offer, for fear of missing out on what appears to be a good deal.

Our latest research also found electrical retailers Currys PC World and offering further, slightly hidden, discounts to sale items, for users to apply during the checkout process.

A screenshot of an Samsung advert on the website
A screenshot of the Currys Pc World website

Except, in the case of, we did not find a promotional code to add to the product in the subsequent checkout process; by comparison, Currys PC world did uphold the promotional offer. Yet we'd argue that these promotional codes are not helpful to the user at all. Firstly, they tempt them into buying the items already on sale but then, they put the onus on them to remember to apply these codes, which as we found, are not well signposted in the checkout process.

Lastly, we found Etsy to be using scarcity tactics in stating that there are a limited number of a particular product available.

A screenshot of the Etsy website

Given Etsy is the kind of platform for independent retailers to market and sell their goods, and items can often be made to order, this kind of design and micro-copy does not provide the user with accurate information.

Our Christmas Wish...

As with our report last year, we would like shoppers to beware, designers be kind and businesses be ethical.

It’s safe to say that deceptive patterns and certain design tactics will most likely persist where the business goals (albeit short-term ones) are prioritised over the users’ experience and longer-term, brand engagement. For our part though, we firmly advocate putting the user first. If retailers design their websites and checkout processes with transparency and honest messaging, then from a positive user experience, they are more than likely to see returning customers, contributing to long-term business profitability.