Dark patterns and tricks in mobile apps

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Dark patterns

In March of this year, California passed a bill that prohibits the use of “dark patterns” in the interface, thereby bringing this concept into the legal realm. Together with Adapty, a subscription tracking and analytics service, we took apart the most “popular” developer tricks in mobile apps.

Harry Brignal coined the term “dark pattern” back in 2010 to describe tricks in products that force users to behave in ways they wouldn’t like, such as inducing them to buy or sign up. He also identified 12 types of such patterns, ranging from an extra item in the cart to subscriptions that can only be cancelled on leap year Mondays.

Forbidden dark patterns

Fortunately, these aggressive types of dark patterns are almost non-existent in mobile products, thanks in large part to app store policies that prohibit misleading users at the payment stages or when requesting access to user data.

The dark patterns that reviewers still overlook are “bait and switch” and “misdirection.

dark patterns

Examples of the use of “next” labels on paywall buttons

Misdirection is a design that focuses your attention on an object in order to distract from an unwanted (for product owners) choice. It used to be used very heavily to draw attention away from the price of a product by writing it very small next to the button on the paywall, or by highlighting the fractional cost (per month or week, for example) rather than the full price you’d have to pay.

dark patterns

Examples of misdirection

Using these patterns is less common now, because in the last year and a half Apple has forbidden manipulating the price in this way – it has to be listed in full size clearly and in large letters. You can also situationally get a version redacted and for “Continue” on the paywall button.

What’s more, at WWDC 2021, Apple said it will give developers the ability to file complaints about other apps violating the guidelines, so the use of dark patterns will be identified and punished even faster.

Allowed tricks and manipulations

But that doesn’t mean that products are abandoning other tricks to increase purchase conversions – those based on our behavioral patterns and cognitive distortions.

So far, there’s no outright ban on their use in store guidelines – after all, it’s not “misleading” in the literal sense. So each developer decides for himself whether or not to use them in his product and in what quantity.

The three most popular ways to influence the user are scarcity, anchoring, and social proof.

We have all felt the influence of scarcity – this includes all the time-limited offers that have come to mobile from the offline and web.

Missed profits are worse than losses, so opportunities are seen as more valuable if their availability is limited.

It’s a pretty classic, even a hackneyed trick that hasn’t lost its effectiveness.

dark patterns

Examples of the use of scarcity

All price-related manipulations refer to the anchor: you can, for example, add a very expensive purchase of the full version of the app for a brighter contrast with subscriptions or jack up the price per month to make a year look more attractive (recalculation of the cost in months will be mandatory here).

dark patterns

Examples of Using Anchoring

The principle of social proof states that in the face of uncertainty we look at how other people act in order to make decisions, and the more we relate ourselves to these “others,” the more they influence us.

This principle has led to star ratings on paywalls, and it’s not even necessary to specify that it’s an app rating or someone else’s rating-just the simple placement of stars will work as well.

dark patterns

Examples of using user reviews

Sometimes this principle is used even more explicitly, with the product explicitly saying “do it because everyone else is doing it”. Examples can be found in notification resolution requests…

dark patterns

Examples of using other people’s experiences

… or on paywalls in the form of a “Most Popular” badge on a default-selected plan.

dark patterns

These are just three of the ways I’ve encountered most often in my work with mobile products, but there are many more combinations and variations, and new ones arise every day. Some of them are harmless (if your app has a really good score, why not say so?), and some of them take advantage of our natural inattention and cognitive distortions and may well be banned someday too.

Every product is unique, and one way or another may or may not work fine in your particular application. In any case, experimenting with pavements, such as changing products, prices, images, texts, etc. – is a critical part of optimizing your business. Speed of iteration and accuracy of measurement are critical, and in Adapty, you can experiment with a paywall and measure the effect without releasing the application, right on the fly, instantly.

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