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Online consumers harmed by 'dark patterns' in web design

New research shows people are experiencing harm due to deceptive web design, also known as 'dark patterns'.

dark patterns maze
Last updated: 08 June 2022
Fact-checked

Fact-checked

Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

New research from the Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC) has found 83% of Australians have had a negative experience caused by harmful web design or 'dark patterns' online. 

Dark patterns are features designed to manipulate a consumer. They can include things like adding hidden costs to a transaction or creating a false sense of urgency around a purchase. 

While most web design is centred around user-friendly principles, dark patterns are designed prioritise profit over users' needs. 

In their report, Duped by Design, CPRC found ten common dark patterns that were in use in Australian websites. 

"Our research clearly shows that dark patterns cause consumer harm. One in five Australians spent more than they intended and almost one in six felt pressured into buying something because of web or app designs," says CPRC Chief Executive Officer Erin Turner. 

We conducted a sweep of Australian websites and found some examples of web designs that appear to be clear breaches of the Australian Consumer Law

CPRC CEO Erin Turner 

"We conducted a sweep of Australian websites and found some examples of web designs that appear to be clear breaches of the Australian Consumer Law."

Turner said one such example was the online store Appliances Online who, when you tried to purchase a washing machine, automatically added a three-year care plan with "very little value" beyond the protection that already exists in consumer law for free. 

"The design strongly implies that a shopper needs to pay extra for help if something goes wrong, which just isn't true," she says. 

The survey of 2000 Australians found nearly one in ten people had accidentally bought something, while one in four had shared more of their personal information than they wanted to. More than one in four accidentally signed up to something they didn't want to due to a dark pattern. 

Among younger consumers the results were even starker, with 65% more likely to spend more than they intended and 34% more likely to accidentally sign up to something. 

Customers don't want to do business with companies that use dark patterns – 30% of people stopped using a website or app when faced with this problem

The research also found that customers don't want to do business with companies that use dark patterns – 30% of people stopped using a website or app when faced with this problem. 

Turner says there needs to be systemic legal change to improve protections for Australian consumers in the law, including new rules that capture how businesses handle consumer data.  

"Our current competition and consumer laws can only deal with a narrow range of harms and the onus is on the consumer to identify and report those harms. What we have is a whack-a-mole approach when what we need is systemic change," she says. 

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