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 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.