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Under the spotlight: Dark patterns in Southeast Asia’s e-commerce marketplaces

Written by Lin Lingyi Published on 

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Design elements in e-commerce marketplaces create the urge to buy more and buy faster. What are the techniques that these platforms deploy?

Hannah Poh is part of a large family. During Singapore’s pandemic lockdown, the 26-year-old shopped for board games to keep her household occupied. Her purchases largely passed muster, but occasionally, she has the nagging feeling that she was compelled to buy things she normally wouldn’t purchase.

“Q0010 and Shopee sometimes push me ‘$10 off $20’ coupons, but it’s not very clear it only applies to non-discounted items, so I end up putting a mixture of discounted and non-discounted items in my cart without benefitting from these coupons,” Poh said to KrASIA.

Her experience is not unique. Flipping through Southeast Asia’s e-commerce apps can be an overwhelming experience. The top may feature deals that you’re missing out on—Baby Deals. $9.90 Deals. Great Value Electronics. Scroll down for a ticker showing 24-hour long promotions and a dizzying array of vouchers. A cursory glance can devolve into a much longer browse-through involving a series of impulse purchases. Maybe you don’t have a cat, but that SGD 9.99 (USD 7.30) bag of cat food looks appealing—you have 2 hours 13 minutes and 12 seconds left to snap up this amazing offer—and surely your dog wouldn’t mind a new treat or two?

Of course, retailers want to maximize sales, and these techniques have their meatspace equivalents. But the line between unobjectionable and questionable user design is blurring. According to a report by iPrice, Southeast Asian consumers spend between seven and 12 minutes each day on e-commerce sites, providing ample opportunity for dark patterns—a compelling set of interface design elements—to work their way through our heads.

What exactly are dark patterns?

Coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull, a cognitive scientist and user experience expert, the term dark patterns refers to a specific class of user design. Rather than harness userbase familiarity to elevate consumer experiences, designers introduce features and nudges that guide user behavior, typically in ways that lead to impulse or overpriced purchases. “This involves a good understanding of psychology and business to manipulate for business goals,” Brignull said to KrASIA.

In 2019, researchers published a study of around 11,000 retail sites, identifying dark patterns in the layouts of more than 11% of the pool. There were deceptive timers on at least 140 sites, among other ethically problematic practices. Popular websites were more likely to perpetuate these methods.

“I originally thought it would be enough to have a self-regulating business code of ethics as companies wouldn’t risk reputational damage,” Brignull said. “But this hasn’t worked. The world grows as more people connect to internet devices, and so do dark patterns.”

Southeast Asian e-commerce players’ dark pattern techniques

KrASIA‘s sweep of Southeast Asian e-commerce marketplaces revealed the prevalence of dark pattern-inspired user design. Almost every e-commerce site in the region—including Lazada, Bukalapak, Sendo, Tokopedia—bombards visitors with a dense interface, aiming for information saturation on smaller mobile screens. Consumers are flooded with kaleidoscopic mixes of coupons and item listings, many of which are tagged with nominal sale prices. Sites also foment a false sense of urgency in anyone who may just be browsing, using hourly “flash sales” coupled with low-stock notifications to capitalize on scarcity bias and encourage users to add items to their basket—putting them one step closer to a transaction.

This can be misleading for users who submit to the urge to take advantage of a good deal without comparing prices or evaluating whether they really need the product. “Doctors recommend using language a child can understand because many people worldwide struggle with literacy or mathematics. Websites can use this to their advantage,” says Brignull.

“When it comes to terms and conditions, consumers can struggle with long pages of text, while deceptive user design can affect reasoning and decision-making in more vulnerable groups. An everyday example is pricing per weight in supermarkets to take advantage of poor numeracy, and give off the impression of [an item] being cheaper than it really is,” he added.

On top of this, social pressures abound, with the number of times an item has been bought displayed prominently under item listings. And through gamification features, which are popular in China and Southeast Asia, retailers lure users to return daily, merging screen time on e-commerce sites with long-term habits.

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The Hippocratic Oath of product design

Dark patterns don’t necessarily originate from maliciousness. Flooding tactics are an inevitable consequence of maximizing punch per pixel on limited real estate for display. Unsolicited product recommendations can help consumers identify complementary products that might fit them.

When KrASIA explained dark patterns to a 26-year-old product designer based in Southeast Asia, she was surprised at how the tools of her trade could be seen as underhanded, because they help her team achieve their goals. “This is my field of work and you’ve identified the tactics we use,” the designer said. “But is it really a bad thing?” Certain user features generate favorable outcomes for everyone, she mused, and “we try to make people do what is best for them.”

Still, the designer acknowledged there are shortcomings. “When cashback coupons are offered, customers need to take a second step to claim them [even after making purchases].” If retailers “made cashback the default, it would save people a lot of confusion, but lose them a lot of money.”

There is a spectrum between honest persuasion and active deception. “It might be useful to know about limited stock. But there’s a massive gray area,” Brignull said. “On one end, some software providers issue fake notifications. But in the middle, e-commerce stores might purposely run out of stock regularly, knowing the next shipment will come tomorrow, which gives the impression of being constantly ‘almost’ out of stock. Hotels are also infamous for creating multiple sub-classes of rooms, which easily creates a sense of stock scarcity.”

“Lying without really lying is pressure-selling, which is not really dark patterns, but a question of ethics,” Brignull said.

The e-commerce market in Southeast Asia is expected to hit USD 200 billion in the next decade. We are buying more things online than ever before, and an awareness of the tactics that lead consumers to click “add to cart” is part of general consumer welfare.

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