Dark Patterns: Evil or Genius?

Abi Hough
  • Dark pattern practices can boost conversions in the short term, but have far reaching, brand damaging consequences
  • If you are going to employ psychology to encourage your visitors to convert, then use it ethically
  • Appeal to their needs, be truthful, guide them but never trick them into a conversion

Most of the time we try to create user interfaces that are honest, helpful, and guide the user towards achieving a desired goal. But what happens when guidance becomes outright deception and manipulation, and if an interface is designed with a deliberate intention to trick users into doing something they most likely didn’t want to do?

Welcome to the world of Dark Patterns.

Dark pattern versus user interface (UI) anti patterns

Let’s begin by making a clear distinction between a dark pattern and a UI anti-pattern, because often the two terms get intermingled and used incorrectly.

A dark pattern is a user interface that has been designed to get users into doing things that perhaps they wouldn’t ordinarily do. They are carefully thought out and they manipulate human psychology principles such as persuasion to ensure their effectiveness and boost ill-gotten gains.

A UI anti-pattern is just plain old bad design, but there is no intention to confuse users; perhaps the designer/developer was just having a bad day.

Why do dark patterns happen?

The use of dark patterns in websites is becoming increasingly common. And, in a progressively competitive online market place, you can probably understand the appeal of using a dark pattern to boost conversions and revenue.

It is also easy to fixate on specific metrics to drive what we think we should be doing with our user experience and website in order to reach commercial goals. The problem is that humans always take the easier option to achieve those goals.

From a business point of view the easier option is to create a “cheat” to reach those goals, and dark patterns will inevitably allow you to achieve this.

Cheats are often perpetuated in the online community; they are a type of social proofing, and when one company creates a dark pattern, others will copy in the hope of achieving the same sort of results. And so dark patterns become more and more prevalent.

From a customer point of view many of the dark patterns we see take advantage of a person’s innate predisposition to want to complete tasks as easily and quickly as possible. And, because humans are in general just lazy, especially when they perceive to be in a familiar situation, and so many dark pattern traps will go unnoticed until it is too late.

Moreover, when a website visitor discovers they’ve been hoodwinked, how much time and effort do they want to expend in order to extricate themselves from the situation… did I mention lazy earlier? I think I did.

As you can see, dark patterns are master manipulators of human nature, behaviour, and psychology. And this is what makes them so successful.

Types of dark patterns


There are many types of dark patterns, the most comprehensive cataloguing has been done by Harry Brignull who runs darkpatterns.org—a great naming and shaming site exposing various companies who have been lulled into the dark pattern subculture. With over 14 categories of dark patterns listed, it makes for an interesting read.

Here is a list of some (but not all) of the types of dark patterns you can expect to see:

1. Forced continuity

We have all probably experienced this kind of dark pattern at some point. It is the type of thing that happens when you sign up for a free trial but are asked to enter your credit card details. Lo and behold, when the free trial ends you’re not sufficiently reminded that you’re about to be billed and when you do remember to cancel, it’s the most difficult task you’ve ever had to complete.

2. Hidden costs

Hidden costs are one of the biggest shopping cart killers, and if your customer fails to see a hidden cost it rolls over into dark pattern territory. Usually presented in the last step of the checkout, sneaky extra costs (often cleverly built into the page layout) can go unnoticed by customers.

3. Sneak into basket

Of a similar ilk to hidden costs, sneak into basket patterns occur when a customer adds a particular item to their basket and the website will add something additional to the basket (for example, a related accessory).

4. Trick questions

When a user is asked to answer a question which when scanned appears to ask one thing, but on closer inspection actually asks something entirely different.

5. Bait and switch

When a user tries to do one thing, but something undesirable and unwanted happens instead. The latest debacle over Microsoft’s Windows 10 upgrade is a fine example of this sort of behaviour.

6. Forced disclosure

Nothing is ever for free—a customer is required to hand over personal information in return for a service or to complete a transaction.

7. Misdirection

A website user’s attention is deliberately focussed on one thing to distract them from something else. Think David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Politicians.


8. Roach motel

This is the sort of dark pattern where it makes it very easy for a user to get into a particular situation but extremely difficult for them to extract themselves from it when they realise it’s not what they expected or desired.

The consequences of dark patterns

While the lure of dark patterns may be strong, let’s stop for a minute and think about karma. Nothing in this life is free. There is always a catch, or a pay back, or an unexpected debt to honour receiving something that is nominally for gratis, and dark patterns are no different in this respect. Whilst they may in the short term offer a solution to a problem, long term their usage can have dramatic and detrimental effects on your business model, and here are a few reasons why:

1. You’re going to annoy people

Whilst your dastardly plan might go unnoticed for some time, it is going to get spotted and you’ll be ousted. There is a rising rebellion against dark pattern usage in the industry and naming and shaming is becoming common place, and sometimes the fall out results in irreversible damage to a brand.

But it’s not only people who work in the industry that are going to make noise if they spot what you’re doing—so will your customers.

The more customers that spot a dark pattern, the quicker it will spread on the social grapevine. Everyone will get savvy to your tactics. New customers will know what to look for, existing customers will start complaining and previous customers are likely to take umbrage and take action. The net result will be that users will be less likely to engage with your company again.

For those that do continue to engage with you, the likelihood will be that it is for a negative reason—think about that for a moment. Just image what sort of effect that will have on your customer contact centre volumes and the cost of maintaining it running on red alert.

2. You might have to fork out a fortune

It seems the law courts are not looking too favourably on dark pattern usage either, and they’re making companies pay out substantial sums of money for deceptive practices. Some examples include:

  1. JustFab (ShoeDazzle/Fabletics)— $1.88 million fine to settle allegations of deceptive marketing when advertised discounts were not available unless a monthly subscription fee was paid
  2. stamps.com— $2.5 million pay-out in a lawsuit relating to misleading advertising in connection with a “no risk” trial that saw users being automatically charged a monthly service fee.
  3. Linkedin— $13 million fine after its “add connections” spam “incident”.

There are regulations in force that prohibit the sort of practices that dark patterns promote that you need to be aware of. The Federal Trade Commission Act , for example, and the EU has recently updated the European Consumer Rights Directive to ban some of the most common dark patterns in use. Be mindful that what constitutes what is or is not a deceptive/dark pattern varies from country to country.

Step away from the dark side, Jedi

While the lure of dark patterns is strong, and on the face of it they may help you achieve certain business objectives in the short term, perhaps the way forward is to reassess why it is you think they are the answer to the problem.

Is there a better, more ethical way to achieve the same thing?

Instead of trickery, show the user why the action you want them to take is the better one and understand your user’s goals and what motivates them. Use psychology sensibly and justly to enhance your user experience. And don’t be hog-washed when A/B testing your dark patterns—of course they will perform better compared to less dubious variations. But what might seem like an immediate win could ultimately be a big loss further on down the road when your magic trick has gone horribly wrong.

Read on to…How can micro-interactions improve customer experience?