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What You Should Know About "Dark Patterns" and How They Fool Users

If you've ever accidentally subscribed to a mailing list, installed software you didn't want, or were tricked into sharing personal data unnecessarily, you've already encountered a dark scheme or a maliciously designed user interface.

ContentsWhy "Dark Patterns?" »Types of Dark PatternsBait and SwitchHidden CostsConfirming ShameDisguised AdsForced ContinuityThe Roach MotelSpam from FriendsMisdirectionZuckering PrivacyHow can I avoid them?Dark Side Has Cookies

One of the most notable examples of 2018 was the financially troubled MoviePass app, which in August sent a message to users trying to get them to cancel their plans. It is a dark pattern. Confusing checkboxes with double negatives? Dark pattern. Hidden terms of service that no one reads? Dark pattern. Even emotional appeals to keep you subscribed to mailing lists are seen as dark patterns, and because they're often very profitable, new user interface (UI) tricks pop up all the time.

Why "dark patterns?" »

The ominous-sounding name was coined by UX designer Harry Brignull as a way to get people to notice and remember the broader category of misleading interfaces. The general idea is that product design can either help users navigate choices in a clear and organic way, or take advantage of the fact that users tend to behave in predictable ways to nudge them into doing things they don't. 'they don't want.

We browse web pages instead of reading them, we click the green button for yes and the red button for no, we prefer to pay hidden fees rather than checkout again, and in general we expect this that things meet certain norms and standards. When we apply these expectations to a well-designed interface, it helps us navigate things quickly, but getting too comfortable can leave us vulnerable to dark patterns.


The "official" site (maintained by Brignull) lists twelve different types of dark patterns. Here are some of the most common.

Bait and switch

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

This is what happens when you aren't shown the full cost of a product until you've done enough work that paying a "convenience fee" or extra shipping at the end seems easier than starting over.

Confirm shame

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

This happens when a company tries to "shame" you into something. For example, unsubscribing from a mailing list might take you to a page that says, "Oh, don't you like us? Another version might be an ad for a workout program that offers you the option to "Join Up" or "Stay Out of Shape." there is a whole blog dedicated to them.

Disguised ads

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

Have you ever clicked on a download button that wasn't? A play button that wasn't a play button? Disguised ads and download links are everywhere, especially on sites where things are offered for free.

Forced continuity

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

Free trials may cause some people to sign up for the quality of the product, but more often than not, once they get your credit card, they just hope you forget about cancelling.

The motel des gardons

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

It is easy to get into this situation but difficult to get out of it. You can register for our service online, but you will need to hand-deliver your notarized cancellation letter to our headquarters in Nebraska. (Hotel California, anyone? - You can leave anytime, but you can never leave! )

Friend spam

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

Hello, you have just joined our site! How about giving us access to your email contacts so you can see if you have any friends here, and maybe we'll email them some other info as well. LinkedIn is the most well-known real-world example of this, but the thirteen million dollar lawsuit may have cut into their profits a bit.

Wrong direction

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

It's almost not even its own dark pattern, since it's part of so many others. This plays into your expectations of how things should work, like using a red button to continue and a green button to resume, or using another dark pattern, like "Tricky Questions". "Do you want to not unsubscribe from our email program?" »

Privacy Zuckering

What You Should Know About  Dark Patterns  and How They Fool Users

Yes, it's named after Mark Zuckerberg, and yes, it's just as hard to avoid as Facebook. While some attempts to recover your data are obvious (take the "Which car manufacturer should you advertise" quiz!), many of them happen because you haven't read the terms and conditions (which are sort of their own form of dark pattern) and allowed your data to be released. And you really can't get it back.

How can I avoid them?

Currently, the human brain contains the only software that can reliably detect and block dark patterns, and the best way to use it is to look at plenty of examples so you know what to look out for. The "#darkpatterns" hashtag on Twitter is the most popular way to point them out, but if you're more of a Reddit person, there's a subreddit that features dark patterns and other design sins. New strains are always coming out, but knowing the basics will help you understand how they work and how to avoid them.

The dark-side has cookies

Dark patterns are nothing new. Mail-in discounts, misleading font sizes on posters, mislabeled prices on store shelves, add-ons when you buy a new car – the art of trying to trick users into making bad choices has a pretty impressive history. With tracking tools like browser fingerprinting, cookies, big data analytics, and live a/b testing, it has become easier for designers to understand how to effectively target consumers. Truly deceptive practices may actually be against the law (companies are prosecuted), but if you don't want not opt for the dark patterns that try to get you to undo the undo, you can help improve UIs by a) not falling into the trap of dark patterns and b) sharing them with the world.

Image credit:Dan Schlosser via Medium, Paul Hanaoka via Twitter