Manipulative UX in webcomics (2022)

Defining the line between dark patterns and winning experiences

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Many designers are familiar with the tactics that companies use to create addicted users, but how often do we use these patterns ourselves? How are we evaluating the difference between a dark pattern and a winning experience? To understand these methods, we must assess experiences in-depth to see how we could be manipulated, or in the case where we are the designers, manipulating others. As an exercise in evaluating dark patterns, I took the time to evaluate the tactics of one of my favorite apps: Webtoon.

Line WEBTOON is an online comic publishing portal launched by Naver Corporation in 2004. Webtoon allows users to read comics created by independent comic book artists/writers for free, to a certain point. It has many comics from authors worldwide, and the content ranges from romance to horror with everything in between.

Webtoon falls into a “freemium” experience, a strategy in which users can freely interact with the application until they want more rich content and functionality. The freemium method is so effective because it enables people to build interest and trust in an experience before investing money in it. However, the Webtoon freemium experience is a particular case that digs deeply into our connections with story and narrative. The freemium strategy, combined with comics’ inherently emotional connections to us, comes together to create the perfect combination of addictive costs. But to truly understand how Webtoon’s interface manipulates us, we need to understand the inherently emotional nature of comics themselves.

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Stories have always bonded people together, with documented narratives existing since 1800 BCA (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Stories fold together, become referential to one another, and pave the experiences for entire generations, even multiple generations. All of us have experienced some form of combined art and narrative where we found ourselves unable to “put it down.” Whether a movie, a video game, or a comic, there’s something deep within us that loves connecting with narrative art forms.

The first comics have origins tracing back to ancient Rome (Trajan’s column) and Egypt (hieroglyphics) and have evolved into hugely influential subsections of cultures worldwide. We all have experiences with comics, from the Sunday paper to Manga. Yet, no matter the origin or theme, we find ourselves deeply connected to comics.

While all forms of narrative have inherent value, comics are the perfect intersection of the written word and visual art. This intersection attracts those with a love of writing and those with a love of visual art together. We can be inspired not only by prose but also by the delicate gestural form of characters. If well-written, we find ourselves connecting to characters as if we personally know them. We can find ourselves immersing and escaping into these art forms in ways that inform our personalities, our friendships, and our lives. They can be used to enhance our existence or escape it entirely.

All of these considerations can quickly come together into a recipe for addictive tendencies. Many of us know of, or are personally “bookworms,” “gamers,” and “otaku.” Yet, until recently, this form of narrative has mostly been consumed in mild ways. Due to narrative art productions’ inherent nature, there are often long periods that users wait for new releases. Writing, drawing, editing, and publishing comics specifically used to take quite some time. These factors could compound into weeks, months, and years between readings in a series. However, as with many other experiences, technology has entirely changed how we read comics.

Webtoon, and similar experiences, have re-written the model of comic consumption entirely. Instead of larger amounts of comics being released over extended periods, small doses of readings are now released week-to-week (or even daily). Additionally, users can access Webtoon comics from a desktop or mobile device, making it easy to engage regularly. Users are even reminded to engage as they receive notifications of their favorite comics when the next “episode” is released. This combination amplifies the addictive nature of the narrative form of comics.

Yet, Webtoon has taken this even further by:

  • Enabling authors to regularly use cliffhangers as a method to attract users’ deeper curiosity
  • Creating a“fast pass” to allow users to pay to see the next episode ahead of time
  • Having users pay for fast pass with the digital currency known as “coins.”
  • Gamifying comic book reading by offering “coins” as a prize for reading
  • Forcing users into a pattern of continually using fast pass
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Let’s say a close friend of yours tells you a juicy story about a mutual acquaintance, Marcy. Your close friend has been slowly leading you through this story for weeks. Marcy likes Stacey, but Stacey is playing hard to get. Still, they seem to be becoming closer. As your friend is telling you this story, it appears they are finally going to say if Marcy and Stacey get together when they stop abruptly, turn to you and say, “Want to know what happens next? Pay five coins.”

This is how a cliffhanger works in Webtoon. Not only are we left on the edge of our seats wondering what happens next, but now we have the power to find out for the low price of five coins. This tactic indicates that comic book creators likely receive money based on their subscriber count and coins spent, though it’s unclear exactly how much monetary incentivization is in place. Given how regularly many featured Webtoon creators use cliffhangers in their comics, we can hypothesize that Webtoon at least somewhat incentivizes writing that includes these tactics.

To be fair, cliffhangers have been used for hundreds of years and are commonly used to engage readers, increase viewership, and improve sales. It’s no surprise that they are used in this context, particularly to drive increased revenue. But regardless of whether or not it’s been done before, it is still a tactic that manipulates users. When reading these comics, we should ask ourselves how often these occur? Are they truly driving the narrative and anticipation, or are they cheap ploys to make money? Like many ethical design considerations, the answer is nuanced.

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As mentioned, “fast pass” is the tactic used by Webtoon to make their freemium experience profitable. Although we can read comics for free, the addictive nature of narrative experience combined with regularly used cliffhangers incentivizes coin purchases. These coins are used to “fast pass” to the next release, which would typically be released week-to-week (depending on the comic). In the app, Webtoon will attempt to automatically take us to the next release, even if it’s not publicly available yet, by automatically showing us the option when we scroll to the bottom of the episode.

The simple scroll to access interaction makes it easy for users to consume content continually. It is a tactic used by TikTok and other social media platforms to create addictive experiences. However, unlike social media apps, in Webtoon when we attempt to scroll to the fast pass piece, a popup appears in our viewport. Inside this pop-up, we can see an enticing preview of the following episode, when it will be publicly available, and an attractive neon green on the “Unlock!” button. If the next comic release we are trying to access will be available in more than seven days, we may get the message, “Why wait? Fast pass to {episode number} now!”

Many aspects of this popup are problematic, but the timeline to release information is particularly interesting. If the next release will be less than seven days, why do the Webtoon creators tell us this information? Most of us can wait so many hours or days for the next episode, right? It is difficult to say what most users decide in this interface, but it is likely that this message increases fast passing, or at the very least, doesn’t stop it. Regardless of when it’s released, somehow, we still can’t seem to wait for what happens next. This could be due to the inherently addictive nature of narrative art, the use of cliffhangers, or perhaps because of our difficulty in determining the real value of coins.

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When a user has no coins, they can buy them from the “coin shop.” The currency of coins is one that many gamified freemium experiences use to confuse users about the value of their money and make spending more appealing. After all, spending coins has a whimsical nature, harkening back to a different time. Spending cash feels grounded to reality. If a user is spending real money to use coins, they are less likely to associate it with money spent when they are used. The initial actual cost related to coins exists in a singular moment, so every instance that a user pays those coins, they do not have to associate it with lost money elsewhere. All understanding of value and meaning disappear as soon as the user converts dollars to coins.

To re-attach this spending to reality, let’s break down the actual value of coin purchase amounts and their in-app return. In the case where a user spends five coins to read the next comic in a series, the value of coins is approximately:

10 coins for $1

  • $1 for 2 fast passes
  • $0.5 per fast pass

52 coins for $5

  • $5 for 10.4 fast passes
  • $0.48 per fast pass

108 coins for $10

  • $10 for 21.6 fast passes
  • $0.46 per fast pass

330 coins for $30

  • $30 for 66 fast passes
  • $0.45 per fast pass

560 coins for $50

  • $50 for 112 fast passes
  • $0.44 per fast pass

The more coins the user purchases, the more “free” coins they get. This incentive increases the likelihood of spending more on coins if the user is on Webtoon regularly. However, this also increases the possibility that users will use fast pass. After all, if we have 560 coins to spend, it would feel like we may never run out, and we can read as many comics ahead of time as we want. Whereas spending about $.50 per episode can add up quickly when considering it from the dollar amount spent ($1, $5, $10, $30, and $50). Some of these additional coins also put users in a position where they cannot use all of their coins at any given time so that they may end up with money spent without any return.

To explain, let’s say we have a gift card and used $4.90 of the entire $5 gift card. How likely are we to go out of our way to spend the remaining $.10? Regardless of whether we use the remaining amount or not, the business has already made the full amount. If we wanted to use the remaining amount, we would have to spend some amount of our own money as no product is only $.10. Not only does the business win the initial amount, but it wins any additional amount we spend to finish off the initial amount.

Another tactic that Webtoon uses in their coin shop is one that businesses have been using for decades: the x.99. When x=the primary value and .99 is the near-total cost, users will look at the x value as closer to the total than the .99 value; that is to say, if the price is $4.99, the user is more likely to associate that total closer to $4 than $5. This amount may be insignificant to individuals, but over time with large amounts of people, a $1 difference is a 20% total increase in profit.

On the other hand, we also need to ask ourselves, is this cost worthwhile? Comic books and the Sunday paper tend to have similar prices overall, so isn’t the return comparable? Though the costs may be similar, and the return may be of similar value, perhaps the bigger question is how we have been manipulated. Does it matter what the return is when dark patterns have been applied? If the return is similar, why does Webtoon need to manipulate its users?

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To further maximize profits, Webtoon allows users to fast pass only to a certain amount. In the example earlier, Edith, we can fast pass three episodes before we are blocked from fast passing further. The problem with this is that if we fast pass every episode available for Edith, we now have to wait three weeks before seeing the next episode. That is unless we fast pass the next episode when it is released.

This puts users in the position of a constant fast pass experience. If the user finds they have used all fast pass episodes available, they can choose to wait three weeks (or longer) to read the series more or keep fast passing weekly. Regardless, Webtoon will remind users that new episodes are released, even those available only by fast pass.

If we are interested enough in a story to spend approximately $1.50 on it, why wouldn’t we pay another $.50 next week? It’s a small amount, and we are interested in the story. But again, this brings us back to the overall return that Webtoon could receive from these small profits from large swaths of people. If Edith has 1 million followers, and even a quarter of those followers buy a fast pass episode week-to-week, Webtoon would still make $125,000 for a single episode. This is only one Webtoon of many that use this model, which makes us wonder how much Webtoon is making a year?

According to How much is the average income of Webtoon artist, Webtoon artists make anywhere from $10,000-$50,000 annually, with 90% of artists surveyed working over 8 hours a day. The article did not break down the hours spent on comics according to income bracket or pay distribution among comic teams, so it’s difficult to say how much Webtoon creators work versus the return. Artists and writers have been notoriously underpaid for decades, even generations. Given these loose calculations, we have to ask, are Webtoon (and other online comic distributors) paying their creators enough?

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Lastly, Webtoon also has prize models in play. In these models, if a user reads over so many episodes from a series, they receive free coins. In this case above, the user would need to read 30 episodes of three popular Webtoon series. If the user has never read one or more of these series, they could easily read 30 episodes within the 6-day timeline and win the prize; however, they could not re-read all three of these series. This is a tactic to gain user interest in highly popular, highly profitable Webtoons.

There are a few key points about this tactic that are important to note:

  • Five coins are worth approximately $.50, meaning the prizes' loss is insignificant over the potential gain of getting a user interested in a new series.
  • Users who read more than three episodes from a series get a popup to subscribe to the series. Users would have to receive this notification for any of these series if participating in this contest.
  • If the user can handle reading more than three episodes in a series for a contest, they most likely enjoy the series enough to subscribe.
  • The series in the screenshot above are all of the same genres, meaning that contest series may differ depending on the user’s preferences.

The prize tactic is not unlike a “buy 1 get 1 free” coupon that many stores use. But it is a method used to engage users intensely with stories and to get them into the habit of using “coins.” Much like coupons, it is all about the long term engagement from the customer/user. If they can expose that customer to a new product and the customer likes the product, they will continually engage with it and likely pay to read more.

Some may argue that Webtoon is simply “playing the game” or optimizing for profit. Can anyone blame a company that uses these tactics, debatably dark patterns, to make money? Certainly, we could say that Webtoon makes these forms of narrative more accessible, improving the income for many artists and ease-of-use for readers. I know this app has brought me regular entertainment and exposed me to many amazing artists and creators. If the freemium model were not in place, would I have even used Webtoon? If I couldn’t “fast pass” to the next episode, would I have become frustrated?

This investigation isn’t about attacking Webtoon, but rather, about exposing the questions we need to ask ourselves as users and designers. The line between moral and amoral design is thin, at best. At the very least, manipulation is a common method used by designers. We say we are empathetic, but we must look at these situations and assess them in-depth to truly extend our empathy. We must consider every pattern and its methods to understand if they are indeed “dark.”

Although Webtoon has less significant dark patterns than more popularly known applications, such as Facebook, these patterns are subtle and require dedicated attention. Manipulative design plays not only on our relationships with technology but also on all of our experiences. In this case, we are also controlled by our multi-generational love of comics, of narrative art forms. As designers, we must dig into these patterns and how they use us and their reasoning for using us. So we must ask ourselves, “Are these tactics used to benefit creators, readers, or the bottom line? Are they enabling addictive patterns and spending? Or are they exposing us to new forms of narrative and giving us the freedom to spend as we please?”

This investigation of Webtoon was exceptionally enlightening into my own addictive patterns, so I challenge other designers to take time to consider how they are being manipulated in the apps they use regularly. Looking at this investigation, I’d love to know what your verdict is.

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