Chapter 15: Urgency

Urgency can be sensible and genuine. There are only so many seats on that flight we want and only so many tickets for that concert, so we know we have to hurry or we’ll miss out. This is just the reality of resources in the physical world. But our appreciation of urgency is something that can be abused, and when retailers intentionally create a false sense of urgency, this is a deceptive pattern.

There are two main types of urgency deceptive pattern: fake countdown timers (usually a prominent, animated digital timer shown counting down to zero, whereupon the offer is meant to end – except it doesn’t); and fake limited time messages (usually a static piece of content stating that the offer will run out soon).

The countdown timer deceptive pattern

Countdown timers on Shopify using the Hurrify merchant app

If you want to start an e-commerce business, Shopify is a great place to start. They make it very easy to set up your store, and they deal with all sorts of complicated things for you, like international tax and shipping. They even have an app store. Surprisingly, the Shopify app store sometimes contains apps that make it easy to create deceptive patterns. In Shopify’s credit, they’ve been cracking down on this recently, but if you search their app store for terms like ‘countdown timer’, ‘social proof’ or ‘FOMO’ (‘fear of missing out’), you’ll probably see all sorts of questionable apps in your search results. These sorts of apps can usually be set up in an honest way, but sometimes they enable bad behaviour. For example, up until recently there was a Shopify app called Hurrify, made by a company called Twozillas (It was removed from the Shopify app store some time after I reported it in early 2023). Hurrify was used to create various fake urgency messages, one of which was a fake countdown timer.1 One of the Twozillas founders, Yousef Khalidi, was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and was asked about the ethics of the Hurrify app. He replied, ‘It’s just a tool … it’s exactly like a hammer: you can fix stuff with the hammer or you can kill somebody with the hammer.’2

Screenshot of a countdown timer. Under the heading ‘Hurry up! Sale ending in:’ is a countdown with the values ‘oo Days, 11 Hrs, 59 Mins, 46 Sec’. Beneath the timer is ‘Sale Ends Once The Timer Hits Zero!’
Screenshot of Hurrify ‘simple text’ campaign, taken from the Hurrify app in Shopify.

As you’ll see in a moment, Hurrify was by no means as neutrally designed as a hammer, since it was explicitly designed to facilitate deception. You can see an example of Hurrify above, showing what a shopper sees when they view a product page that has been...

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Since 2010, Harry Brignull has dedicated his career to understanding and exposing the techniques that are employed to exploit users online, known as “deceptive patterns” or “dark patterns”. He is credited with coining a number of the terms that are now popularly used in this research area, and is the founder of the website He has worked as an expert witness on a number of cases, including Nichols v. Noom Inc. ($56 million settlement), and FTC v. Publishers Clearing House LLC ($18.5 million settlement). Harry is also an accomplished user experience practitioner, having worked for organisations that include Smart Pension, Spotify, Pearson, HMRC, and the Telegraph newspaper.