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Dark patterns of dealerships: the UX of buying a new car.

The things that drove me mad when buying my new car, and how to avoid them.

My wife and I just went through the gauntlet of buying a new car, and I can say with confidence that it's as bad as you might expect; shady car dealers, questionable financing deals, and optional extras that are more like optional ball and chains. The tactics salespeople used to get us to buy were plentiful and maddening.

With my UX-tinted sunnies on, I thought it was a good opportunity to examine the parallels with some well-known scammy online sales tactics, or 'dark patterns', to see just how manipulative dealerships can be.

Dark Patterns

If you're unfamiliar with the term 'dark pattern' then here's a quick up-to-speed: it refers to an online interface tactic designed to get you to buy something without really needing to. Think of insurance options that are 'pre-ticked' when all you want to buy is a plane ticket to Sydney for the weekend. Or those insanely hard to unsubscribe to email lists where you never really know if you've opted out; both drive me bananas, yet drive profits for companies. They're deliberately designed to be bad for you.

A subset of dark patterns are the misleading banners which create a false sense of urgency or exclusivity. Think of a hotel room you've recently booked online. If you spotted a red pop up that alarmingly declared, '5 other people are looking at this room RIGHT NOW' or 'Someone just booked a room in this hotel!' or here's my personal favourite–the hail Mary, 'ONLY 1 ROOM LEFT!!!' then you've seen these in action. They're misleading and designed to get you to rent the room when perhaps there was never such an urgent need.

Let me give you an example from one of the dealerships we visited. Noticing that we were on the verge of leaving after wrapping up our test drive, the salesman suddenly felt the need to introduce us to his manager, and quickly dragged them over from their ivory tower for a meet and greet.

An innocent enough move perhaps, but they made it seem like this was a never before witnessed event—as though a benevolent lord-of-the-land (the manager) had lowered his drawbridge to go forth unto his kingdom and shake hands with the peasants.

This pre-rehearsed circus act is unquestionably a cunning plan to make customers feel special and yet it's a dark pattern, pure and simple. It makes you stay longer, with a more important person, who then can start the sales process pretty much all over again and you feel obliged to listen because of their seniority.

Aggressive sales targets are the real problem here, because they introduce the need for urgency in the salespeople themselves. With 'Mr. Nice Guy' not quite clinching the deals needed to meet monthly targets, these aggressive dark patterns come into play.

Out of the many ridiculous sales pitches, we singled out this pearler: "Well this is the last car we have left in the sale yard, and it will likely sell this weekend, so you'd better put down a deposit today to be safe."

Not content with the urgency angle, another dealer went completely the other way by slamming a competitor's ability to deliver on time: "Well, that particular competitor's model is really hard to get, and there's a 6 month wait list, so I wouldn't recommend buying it with a baby on the way." (We actually went on to buy the model he was naming believe it or not. There it was just sitting in the caryard – egad! Another miracle!)

It got me wondering, why even bother with a physical dealership at all? If these tactics are so rampart, then let's just do away with them altogether by cutting out the dealership.

Driveaway... online?

You're probably aware of all the Tesla hype in recent years, but all bad press aside, owners love their cars. The process of buying the new Tesla Model 3, according to some reports, just highlights how far society has come in terms of our appetite for online risk. Completely different from the 'traditional' purchase as I understand it, buying a Model 3 is all done online, without a face-to-face with either a Tesla employee or indeed, your car.

Blind faith

Blind faith in the brand alone was all that was needed to seal the deal for early adopters. It's literally like buying a new pair of Nike's from Amazon. Select model + colour > select options > go to checkout > proceed with purchase > Success! Your waiting time for delivery of your insanely expensive car you've never seen is... uh, indefinite.

If you go for a brand that has the solid reputation, then you probably don't mind gambling with the unseen, but for a young family that needs a comfy 7-seat SUV to drive to Adelaide two or three times a year, then you really need to speed date the car to see if you're compatible.

We persisted with the dealerships for two key reasons. Test drives and pram fittings.*

*We have a large pram that needed to actually fit in the boot – not something you're easily able to work out sitting on the couch, unfortunately. Salespeople were dripping with sweat as they realised the deal could be dead in the water if that pram didn't fit. Dead set, you will never see a dealership supply their own pram for this reason – so bring your own if you have kids. This was my dad's advice and it was invaluable. Thanks dad.

Test drives = awkward UX.

Having a salesperson sitting in the back droning on about the unspoiled virtues of their model is the stuff of nightmares. Confined to a 3 cubit metre space with a smelly salesman (I am not joking, one salesman stank) is terrible. Even the process of handing over my driver's license for insurance purposes was similar to meeting the lord of the manor; somehow it was an unbelievable privilege to drive these SUVs.

One salesperson point blank told us that there was no way we could test drive it that day, as they were 'far too busy with other ready-to-buy customers'. After sensing our disappointment, he said something along the lines of 'well let me talk to my manager and see if I can persuade him to let us do it'. A 'good cop, bad cop' dark pattern in full swing, suddenly this lowly guy is supposed to be our saviour and the manager the bad guy for not letting us take his prized stallion out for a spin.

Surprise, surprise, we took it on a test drive 5 mins later.

I will say however, that one Mazda dealership was happy for us to take the car out all by ourselves without any pushy agenda, which was a really pleasant change. Given we had been thorough on our research on all the cars we test drove, we were well versed with most of the features, which a dealer would have felt obliged to go over again in agonising detail.

In my opinion, the only two things you should care about at this stage of car buying are:

a) your emotional reaction to the car, and ;

b) how pleasant it is to drive.

To hell with the features at this stage – they're not in question. You've done your research and know everything it has to offer. All you should be doing is driving and asking yourself if you have a smile on your face.

How does this all translate to design?

Well as a designer, it's my job to make sure I'm thinking about your users and their perception of your brand; not necessarily your wishes and desires, so I rarely condone design that makes it harder to understand what is happening on screen or paper. My philosophy will always be to espouse clarity over confusion.

Apathetic UX designers can be reactive to to dark patterns in the same way stressed dealerships can be, thinking that if other companies are doing it, it can't be that bad can it? But the the risk to your reputation could be irreparable.

It kills repeat business (think about servicing your car here), and unless you have a monopoly on your market, it's a very real concen. I've been known to pay $50-60 more for plane tickets because the cheaper airline's website felt like it was trying to trick me at every turn.


Most dealerships we visited were terrible, but you should definitely go and test drive your potential car if it's an option available to you. The long and short of it is to thoroughly research your field ahead of time. It's the only way you won't be tricked into one of these pesky dark patterns. Knowledge = power and always will.

Know your models inside and out and if you have to go to a dealership, don't rely on any salesman to convey facts or truths. They won't flat out lie, but they will use everything at their disposal to get your signature on that dotted line before you leave.

Oh, and for those of you who care, we bought the quirky, but unbelievably practical and not-too-expensive-for-its-class Skoda Kodiaq. Driving it is a great experience.

Ben Stevens is a Digital Designer based in Melboure, Australia.

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