Award-Winning Paper: “Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites”


For the tenth year, FPF’s annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers program is presenting award-winning research to lawmakers and regulators. Among the papers to be honored at an event at the Hart Senate Office Building on February 6, 2020 is Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites by Arnuesh Mathur, Gunes Acar, Michael Friedman, Elena Lucherini, Jonathan Mayer, Marshini Chetty, and Arvind Narayanan. Mathur and his co-authors present an analysis of deceptive user interface designs across 11,000 shopping websites to create a taxonomy of “dark pattern” characteristics that harm user decision-making.

Dark patterns are user interface design choices that benefit an online service by coercing or deceiving users into making a decision that, if fully informed and capable of selecting alternatives, they may not make. In Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites, Arunesh Mathur and his co-authors present a new, large-scale analysis of the presence of dark patterns across 11,000 shopping websites, informing our understanding of the prevalence of these patterns and their influence on users. Mathur observes that “at best, dark patterns annoy and frustrate users. At worst, they can mislead and deceive users, e.g., by causing financial loss, tricking users into giving up vast amounts of personal data, or inducing compulsive and addictive behavior in adults and children.” In the context of shopping websites, dark patterns can trick users into signing up for recurring subscriptions and making unwanted purchases, resulting in “concrete financial loss.”

The authors contribute a taxonomy that offers precise terminology to characterize how each type of dark pattern functions and exploits users’ cognitive biases. The authors identify five distinct types of dark patterns: asymmetric, covert, deceptive, information-hiding, and restrictive. Of these, the authors state that “the majority of [dark patterns] are covert, deceptive, and information hiding in nature.” Additionally, the authors observe the effects of user interface design that employs the anchoring effect, the bandwagon effect, the default effect, the framing effect, the scarcity bias, and the sunk cost fallacy to manipulate users’ decision-making abilities.

Through their analysis, the authors discover 1,818 dark pattern instances across 53K product pages and 11K shopping websites, representing multiple types and categories. Interestingly, the authors observe that “shopping websites that were more popular, according to Alexa rankings, were more likely to feature dark patterns.” Based on their findings, the authors suggest that future study should focus on creating empirical evaluations of the effects of dark patterns on user behavior in order to develop better countermeasures against dark patterns to ensure that users can enjoy a fair and transparent shopping experience.

If you’re interested in learning more about how dark patterns in user interface design influence users’ behavior, you’ll want to read Mathur’s paper.

The Privacy Papers for Policymakers project’s goal is to put diverse academic perspectives in front of policymakers to inform the development of privacy legislation. You can view all of this year’s award-winning papers on the FPF website.