Dark Patterns: Hidden Manipulation in Japan’s Popular Apps

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An example of an app’s countdown timer that reads, “The campaign to receive 10 times the regular points will end in 0 hours 29 minutes 43.46 seconds.

Over 90% of widely used apps in Japan, whether for shopping, social media or games, adopt user interfaces that lead consumers to disadvantageous choices, according to an investigation conducted by the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

These manipulative strategies are known as dark commercial patterns, or just “dark patterns.”

As they can result in consumers purchasing unintended products, Western nations are taking action in regulating such deceptive practices, but Japan has been slow to deal with the situation.

Dark patterns are designs schematically embedded in websites or apps that lead consumers to make decisions against their interests. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned in its 2022 report that these practices “often deceive, coerce or manipulate consumers and are likely to cause direct or indirect consumer detriment in various ways.”

Tokyo Tech Associate Prof. Katie Seaborn and her research lab conducted the investigation in 2022 on the presence and techniques of dark patterns, looking into 200 popular apps. The results showed that they were used in 93.5% of the apps, with 63.5% of them employing three or more types of techniques.

Specific techniques included “preselection” (55%), where recurring purchases are selected by default; “nagging” (43%), where ads are displayed repeatedly; and “toying with emotion” (16%), where false countdown timers push consumers to rush their purchases.

The European Union prohibited dark pattern designs that deceive consumers in its Digital Services Act agreed upon in 2022. Similar regulations exist in some U.S. states.