Are You Accidentally Using Dark Patterns?

July 18, 2022

It may sound like a chapter from a Harry Potter book, but dark patterns are a force every designer needs to combat. What exactly are these dark patterns in UX? Dark patterns are sneaky strategies that companies can use to trick customers into something they don’t want to do, or would unknowingly do, that benefit the company. The term was coined by UK UX designer Harry Brignull in 2010, although the tactics he describes have likely been around since much earlier. All dark patterns use the human psychology knowledge studied in UX training, not to anticipate user needs and meet them, but to persuade users to make decisions that drive up sales, increase engagement, release their own data, or various other perks for the marketing department. Dark patterns can be as egregious as an advertisement image that has a hair pictured into the design, tricking the user into brushing off the “hair” and therefore clicking on the ad, or something more commonly used and accepted like users being forced to opt-out of marketing emails when purchasing products. Lots of companies use these techniques, even major players like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and more.

Brignull identified 12 categories of dark patterns:

Trick Questions- Posing confusingly worded questions that trick readers that skim.

Sneak into Basket- Putting a warranty, insurance, or other product in the cart automatically unless the user opts-out

Roach Motel- Users can get into a situation and have a hard time getting out  through poorly designed navigation

Privacy Zuckering- Taking the name from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, this category has the user revealing more personal information than they intended

Price Comparison Prevention- In e-commerce sites it is difficult to look at two products and their prices, preventing an informed decision

Misdirection- Using graphics and text to attract attention to one area, distracting the user from information like an upcharge, subscription, or other important changes

Hidden Costs- Charges that pop up during the checkout process that weren’t originally stated, like service fees, or shipping costs

Bait and Switch- Features that seem like they accomplish one thing, but actually do another. A common example is when the ‘x’ in a window seemingly closes the window, but actually opens the advertisement’s website.

Confirmshaming- When a user wants to decline an offer, instead of offering a “skip” button, the company has a “I don’t like saving money” button or something similar to encourage compliance

Disguised Ads Ads that are designed to appear like means of navigation or content

Forced Continuity- When free trials ask for credit card information and charges start automatically

Friend Spam- Ads that offer to find friends for users on social networks but actually send a message to the user’s contacts.


After reviewing the dark pattern techniques, and likely being a victim of several yourself, you may wonder why these strategies are employed. The brief answer is the temptation of short-term success and money for the company involved. By using a sneaky upcharge that most users don’t realize they should opt-out of, companies can add significant revenues. Or maybe collecting user data by nefarious means to market to or even to sell to third parties is more appealing than providing an efficient check out process. When competition is tough, companies can stoop to these means to meet their bottom lines.

As designers it is crucial that we speak out against dark patterns and persuade clients to use alternative methods. We must avoid dark patterns for several reasons. First, many of the dark patterns are illegal and companies can be sued for using them. Second, they make designs less accessible. Can you imagine trying to figure out a misdirection question while having dyslexia? Or identifying a hidden ad with a visual impairment? Dark patterns are tricky for any user to see, even without any conditions. Third, dark patterns are terrible for customer retention. Users typically figure out at some point the company tricked them and they decide not to give them any more time or money. Fourth, and most importantly, UX designers are USER experience designs, not Sales Driving designers, or Engagement Increase Designers. Our job is to identify and advocate for the user’s needs, not the company’s needs.

If you’d like to see more real life examples of dark patterns in use, or call out a company for using them, head to this Hall of Shame Some may be blatantly awful, while others are part of an almost daily experience by now. Take a look at these examples and reflect on your last design. Are you accidentally using dark patterns?

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