According to a new report from user experience design agency Sigma, "dark UX patterns" are found across the likes of Amazon, Etsy and Boohoo. The report says that dark UX is being used to get customers to buy products or service they don't wish to, or to trick users into signing up to be marketed to in sneaky ways.

Sigma – whose previously provided tips on how to design a website for people with disabilities or mental health – has looked into how online stores like Amazon, Etsy and Boohoo are using unethical UX design techniques to manipulate buyers to spend more, such as micro-copy, scare tactics and colour theory.

The agency’s report follows the busy Christmas and New Year online shopping periods, where many of us probably ordered presents for our families in a last-minute frenzy. UK retailers took £25 billion in sales over the Christmas period alone in 2016, nearly half of which were completed on a mobile device.

More of us are opting to buy things online to beat the bad weather and the crowds around busy times like Black Friday, Christmas and January. But are we being somewhat scammed?

Following on from its initial report a year ago, Sigma says although it never intended to single out brands, it has anyway by suggesting Amazon, AO.com, Very, Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo, Etsy and Currys persuade and dissuade consumers in ways that benefit the brand rather than us, the user.

Tactics such as vague micro-copy with confusing opt-in and opt-out checkboxes, and colour theory to misdirect purchases at the checkout lead Sigma to question the ethics of the retailers.

We take a look at some of Sigma’s allegations against a selection of well known online retailers.

Amazon

Sigma clicked to buy a television from Amazon and, instead of clicking through straight to either the basket or the checkout pages, a breakdown cover product pop-up appeared, drawing attention toward the yellow ‘Add to basket’ button and away from the grey ‘No thanks’ button, as seen here. This could lead to an unnecessary purchase.

Sigma says similar techniques have been used by charities when asking for donations. London Zoo is an example, giving the customer an option of “add to basket without donation” or “add to basket with donation” with equal weighting, with the latter option to the right; a usual place for users to proceed. Furthermore, it's also not instantly clear how much the user would be donating. Although the UX design has been improved, Sigma says more could be done.

Very

When purchasing something from Very, micro-copy makes ticking and unticking boxes confusing. Take a look at the contradictory checkboxes below – one is opt-in and one is opt-out.

Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo

Both online clothing retailers look to use limited duration as a way to encourage users to purchase items within a given time frame, Sigma says.

However, when Sigma visited both sites on multiple occasions, it revealed that the offers were available for longer than the state duration.

Therefore it seems as though the user is pressured into buying anything in order to achieve the offer for fear of missing out on what appears to be a good deal.

Clas Ohlson

Home store Clas Ohlson was found to be offering a hardware product on sale advertised as a ‘clearance’ sale, yet the offer is valid until July 2018.

It would seem the retailer is leading the customers into a ‘panic’ purchase.

Currys PC World and AO.com

These electrical retailers offer further, slightly hidden discounts to sale items for users to apply during the checkout process, according to Sigma.

The agency says it couldn’t find a promotional code to add to the product in the subsequent checkout process in the case of AO.com, but Currys did uphold the promotional offer.

However Sigma argues the promotional codes tempt people into buying items already on sale, but then, they put the onus on the buyer t remember to apply these codes, which Sigma says, are not well signposted in the checkout process.

Etsy

Etsy lets the buyer know there are a limited number of a particular product available – "scarcity tactics" as Sigma labels it.

Although Sigma acknowledges Etsy is for independent retailers to market and sell their goods, and items can often be made to order, the wording and micro-copy doesn’t provide accurate information.

Improvements fail to impress

Sigma says although the retail landscape is extremely competitive at the moment, it’s concerning that big-name brands are still trying to attain more money, data or marketing channels to users.

It was hoped improvements would be noticed from a similar report last year, yet the "unethical practises are still very much in place", Sigma says.

"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."