Dark Patterns

So far, we’ve posted content mostly focused on trends and tips and tricks on guiding designers in what they should do. In this post, we are going to be talking about what designers shouldn’t do, specifically implementing patterns that are deemed unethical - dark patterns.

Dark patterns are design patterns that are used to deceive and mislead users to take actions (or unknowingly accept conditions) they normally would not, taking advantage of short attention spans and the rush of the modern world. Harry Brignull (PhD Cognitive Science), who first coined the term in 2010 after the boom of ecommerce systems explained it as follows:

“When you use the web, you don’t read every word on every page — you skim read and make assumptions. If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of it by making a page look like it is saying one thing when in fact it is saying another. You can defend yourself against dark patterns on this site.”

Dark patterns help companies turn a profit in the short run but are counterproductive to creating long lasting relationships with customers. They have been around for quite some time (in the early web pop-ups congratulating you for being the nth winner and asking you to claim your prize), and have only become more sophisticated in their sleights of hand.

Luckily courts of law and governmental agencies such as the European Commission have been cracking down on some of these patterns, especially those that invade our privacy. You may have seen notices to accept cookies popping up on every site lately - a prime example of light being shone on information that used to be, for better lack of a term, stolen from users.

We have produced a list of some of the most common dark patterns in hopes of raising your awareness as a user (you certainly ran across one, maybe more) and triggering your empathy as a designer (you may be asked to implement one, maybe more).

Dark Pattern Examples:

Bait and Switch:

The bait and switch dark pattern involves the user taking an action expecting a specific result only to see something entirely different and undesirable take place. As shown in the Windows update example below, this tends to happen when buttons with well established actions (like an ‘X’ to close the window) are linked to unnatural functionality (approval of an update). This leads to confusion, frustration and of course a loss of trust.

Disguised Ads:

This pattern is all about camouflage. Ads are disguised to look like they are a component of the web page and/or app. Some sites take this pattern to the extreme by dressing the ads up in a relevant call to action design. Softpedia (and similar app aggregators) are the lords of this realm as can be seen in the following example:

Finding the link to download what you want is a ‘Where’s Waldo’ experience.

Forced Continuity:

A free trial version that is limited to a specified period of time is a common pattern in the digital business world. Lurking in this pattern, however, is its darker brother - forced continuity. This pattern involves taking the user’s credit card information up front and billing them discreetly (without any reminders, warnings, or options to opt-out) once the free trial period is over. The user ends up with a new unexpected entry on their credit card bill. This dark pattern is quite common, Audible being one its examples.

Once the trial ends the bills start adding up.

Friend Spam:

This dark pattern is particularly disturbing, and is one that cost LinkedIn $13 million in a class-action lawsuit. The trick employed here is asking the user for their email or social media permissions to find and add their friends, but then using that information to spam the user’s social network, sometimes even making it seem like it came from the user themselves!

Hidden Costs:

Hidden costs have been around in the offline world for quite some time, the banks being the major players in this domain with the likes of sneaky credit card charges. Naturally, this carried on over to the digital world but this time with e-commerce sites being the major culprits. Users, when shopping are shown one price, only to be surprised by many more popping up when they reach the last step (generally the checkout). Proflowers, a flower retail store in the United States is guilty of using this pattern:

The price displayed upon adding the item to the cart - $34.99

The final cost at checkout: $52.97


Misdirection is the bread and butter of magicians and tricksters, their most powerful tool, taking advantage of gaps in our perception and immediate shifts in our focus. And that’s where it should have stayed but, unfortunately it has made its way into the dark pattern hall of shame. The user is guided far away from where the designer wishes to secretly place an unexpected action, say for instance, permissions for something that normally would require second thought. A good example of this is Skype, where whilst installing the app, the user, if not careful, makes Bing their default search engine:

Privacy Zuckering:

Named after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, this pattern forces users to divulge more of their personal information than they would prefer to. The tactic employed is providing one simple option of agreeing, and another extremely difficult option of reading through textbook length legalese. Recently this pattern has been under a great deal of scrutiny and business owners have been legally forced to be more transparent.

Roach Motel:

The iconic ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’ lyrics to Hotel California comes to mind with this dark pattern. All barriers to entry are removed yet there is no mode of egress in site. Almost everyone has experienced this one time or another - the user signs up for a service or email and, when they wish to unsubscribe, cannot find a way, or have to jump through a number hoops to do so.

Trick Questions:

This dark pattern relies on linguistic misdirection to take advantage of users who skim content rather than carefully read - which is practically everyone because copy used in settings pages does not belong in the literary fiction world. Double negatives and homonyms are but a few of the tools used to confuse users with this dark pattern. A particularly sly tactic is placing two contradictory statements one after another, relying on the user’s reflexive click, as shown in the example below:


Not as intense as the shaming of Cersei in Game of Thrones, but still a form of shaming nonetheless, this dark pattern is designed to make a user feel guilty for not accepting the offer on hand. Language is once again the weapon here. Some companies overtly ask you to scold yourself such as the following example:

Others, such as Amazon take a more lenient approach:

Head on over to: https://confirmshaming.tumblr.com/ to see more examples.

This list is by no means exhaustive since dark patterns, like their underlying technology multiply, advance and become more sophisticated at a very fast pace. Legislative branches of governments, though late to the party, have started regulating digital products but, as it is with hackers, they will always be one step behind. It is, therefore, important that we as users keep an eye out for these tricks but even more important that we, as designers, avoid being strong-armed into integrating what is, essentially, fraud into our work.

Stay safe, and help keep others safe.