The sketchy UX decisions behind Amazon’s Prime Pantry

How their newest offering is testing a whole boatload of behavioral tricks.

Paper towels and dark patterns…

Last week I did some house cleaning and found myself short of a few common household items (soap, paper towels, gummy candies). So instead of doing my usual run I decided to finally try out Amazon PrimePantry, something I’d seen all over Amazon over the past few months and had been pushed pretty agressively in ads around San Francisco.

I needed 5 items, and in the time that it took for me to search, compare, and purchase these items through Pantry I saw some behaviroal UX techinques that I hadn’t seen Amazon use before but were clearly designed to push users into certain behaviors. Many of these techniques would fall somewhere in the gray area between persuasive design and dark patterns. They certainly aren’t designed to make it as easy/straightforward for the user…

A Dark Pattern is a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills. —

Fill up this box!

This one is genius. They’ve gamified purchasing by turning shopping into a game of Tetris. This scheme is certainly not as straightforward as adding items to a cart but by setting a “budget” Amazon has shifted the conversation away from “do I need this?” to “what else do I need to fill up this box?”.

The trick of reframing the purchasing conversation has been used by tech companies for years in the form of multiple colors of the same product. Making this switch encourages the customer to think about the more personally gratifying question of which color they would get instead of the more critical one of “should I buy this?”.

Clip this coupon!

This is one of the older tricks in the books and one that’s being cribbed from the analog shopping playbook. Coupons are a fantastic fulcrum towards action, and in this case gives Amazon a tool to both make customers feel like they’re getting a better deal and likely dynamically adjust for stock and distrubtion.

The design of coupons in PrimePantry adds multiple clicks to the purchase (adding to cart doesn’t apply the coupon, you have to go into the product page and “clip” it) but I’m willing to bet it dramatically increases purchases. Coupons are a sticky piece of user experience, a variable reward system that encourages more shopping, and it’s one bit of UX that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Amazon roll out to other facets of their website in the future

Don’t worry about comparing

If you’re a remotely price-conscious shopper you’ve probably comparison shopped at the grocery store by per-unit cost.

Unfortunately in Amazon PrimePantry this option is frequently obfuscated by putting different units for similar products. This makes it almost impossible to detemine if what you’re picking is a good deal.

Removing comparison shopping means that the prices can be altered in ways that lets Amazon perform Differential Pricing without it being easy to detect. There’s no good excuse for why all products of a similar category shouldn’t be priced with the same units.

Slippery Slope

Each of these above design decisions are fairly mundane, but when taken in as a whole (especially when you include bits of news like ProPublica’s piece about how Amazon preferentially display’s their own, more expensive, product over others’) this trend should be concerning.

About three-quarters of the time, Amazon placed its own products and those of companies that pay for its services in that position even when there were substantially cheaper offers available from others.
ProPublica, Sep 20, 2016

We are entering a time where tiny design choices can have a massive unseen impact on the behavior of millions of people; this should be both exciting and concerning for designers. Since all of this is unregulated, and by its very nature completely opaque, the best thing you can do is stay educated to these tools & tricks.

There is a fuzzy line somewhere that defines what is clever design and what is a dark pattern. I don’t know where that is and I doubt any individual can define it, but it does pay to see where things are trending and perhaps review your own design decisions through this same lens.