Dark Pattern (UX Dark Pattern)

What is Dark Pattern Design?

Dark pattern is a term used in user experience (UX) design to describe design elements that intentionally mislead, deceive, or trick users into taking actions they might not have taken otherwise.

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Also known as ‘Deceptive Pattern’, these are the sneaky maneuvers on websites and apps that make you click on things or sign up for services that you didn’t intend to. They’re the reason you sometimes find it exceedingly difficult to cancel a subscription or opt out of an email list.

The “Dark Pattern” Inception

The phrase “Dark Pattern” was coined by Harry Brignull in 2010. Brignull, a UX designer himself, wanted to raise awareness about the unethical practices in UX design that exploit human psychology to the advantage of businesses, often at the cost of the user’s experience or consent.

He even launched a website called deceptive.design (formerly darkpatterns.org) to showcase various examples and types of dark patterns, categorizing them in a way that both designers and everyday internet users could understand.

While the term may be relatively new, the practice has been around for as long as people have been designing interactive systems.

However, with the rise of digital platforms and online businesses, the use — and abuse — of dark patterns has become increasingly prevalent. It’s a significant enough issue that even legislators are starting to take note.

Types of Dark Patterns

An example of a deceptive pattern, where users may miss "opt out" features

Dark patterns come in various forms and with specific goals, like leading users to make unintended purchases or share personal information. Being familiar with the different types of dark patterns can help you navigate online platforms more consciously, helping you make more informed decisions about the actions you take.

  • Bait-and-Switch: This happens when you set out to do one thing, but the design covertly alters the action. For example, you click to close a window but end up installing software instead.
  • Roach Motel: Roach Motels are where users find it easy to get into a particular situation but challenging to get out. Think of subscription services that allow you to sign up with a single click but require a tedious process to cancel.
  • Forced Continuity: Ever signed up for a free trial and then got charged because you forgot to cancel? That’s forced continuity, where the design neglects to remind you when your free trial is about to end.
  • Disguised Ads: These are advertisements camouflaged to appear as other kinds of content or navigation, designed to get accidental clicks.
  • Sneaked into Basket: You’re online shopping and proceed to checkout, only to find extra items have magically appeared in your cart. These extras were stealthily added without your explicit action.
  • Trick Questions: These are questions or options formulated in a way that misleads you into making a selection you wouldn’t otherwise choose.
  • Confirmshaming: This design strategy makes you feel bad for opting out of a service. For example, “No, I don’t care about my health” as an opt-out option for a fitness newsletter.
  • Privacy Zuckering: Named after Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, this tactic tricks users into publicly sharing more information than they intended to. Usually, it’s hidden deep within confusing privacy settings.
  • Hidden Costs: You’re about to finalize a purchase, and suddenly new fees, like shipping or handling, appear, increasing the total cost.
  • Misdirection: This involves directing users’ attention away from what they should be focused on, often to obscure fees, terms, or actions they wouldn’t agree with if fully informed.

How Do Dark Patterns Work?

An ad "shames" users not to leave their service

Understanding how dark patterns work involves diving into the psychological principles that they often exploit. At their core, these designs take advantage of our human tendencies, habits, and biases to guide us toward actions we may not have wanted to do.

Here are just a few of the examples of the psychological principles behind dark patterns:

  • Scarcity Bias: When something appears to be in limited supply, we’re more likely to want it. dark patterns use countdown timers or “only a few left” messages to create a sense of urgency.
  • Authority Bias: We tend to obey authoritative figures or entities. Badges like “Editor’s Choice” or “Top Rated” can make us more inclined to trust a product.
  • Default Effect: We’re more likely to go with default options, especially when presented with complex choices. Some online forms use this principle to pre-select options that benefit the company but may not benefit the user.
  • Social Proof: We are often influenced by the actions or opinions of others. Displaying messages like “500 people are looking at this product” exploits this principle.

Companies and designers, often driven by metrics like increased engagement, higher conversion rates, or more sales. intentionally use these concepts to their advantage.

Ethical Concerns and Criticism

Dark patterns raise significant ethical concerns as they intentionally manipulate users into making decisions that they might not have made otherwise. This not only compromises user autonomy but can also lead to financial losses or unwanted sharing of personal information.

The ethics of user experience design come into question when these deceptive practices are employed, making it a contested area among professionals in the field.

Various stakeholders have criticized the use of dark patterns. User advocates argue that these tactics betray the trust between users and service providers, leading to a decline in user satisfaction and potentially harming a company’s long-term reputation.

The growing attention from both advocacy groups and policymakers underscores the need for ethical considerations in design decisions.

Dark Pattern Legislation

There has been growing awareness among lawmakers about the need to address dark patterns. In the United States, the “Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction” (DETOUR) Act was introduced to combat manipulative design on websites and apps.

The act aims to put restrictions on large online platforms, prohibiting them from using deceptive user interfaces to trick consumers into taking actions they might not intend to take. Similar legislative efforts are underway in other countries as well.

The implications of such laws are significant for both users and businesses. For users, these regulations offer added layers of protection, enabling a more ethical digital environment.

For businesses, though, compliance may necessitate a comprehensive review and redesign of their user interfaces and customer interaction strategies. While this could be resource-intensive, it also offers an opportunity for businesses to rebuild trust and foster long-term relationships with their users.

The Bottom Line

Dark patterns are manipulative design tactics used in digital interfaces to guide users into making decisions that benefit the organization but not necessarily the user. They exploit psychological principles like scarcity bias and authority bias to subtly influence behavior.

While these tactics have been criticized for ethical reasons, lawmakers are beginning to address these issues with legislation like the DETOUR Act, aiming to protect users from deceptive practices.

Understanding dark patterns is essential for both users and businesses. For users, being aware of these tactics can lead to more informed decisions online. For businesses, using dark patterns might offer short-term gains, but they can harm long-term trust and reputation.

Digital spaces are always going to be a major part of our lives. Recognizing and fighting against dark patterns helps pave the way for a more ethical and transparent online environment.

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Marshall Gunnell
IT & Cybersecurity Expert

Marshall, a Mississippi native, is a dedicated expert in IT and cybersecurity with over a decade of experience. Along Techopedia, his bylines can be found on Business Insider, PCWorld, VGKAMI, How-To Geek, and Zapier. His articles have reached a massive readership of over 100 million people. Marshall previously served as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and technical staff writer at StorageReview, providing comprehensive news coverage and detailed product reviews on storage arrays, hard drives, SSDs, and more. He also developed sales strategies based on regional and global market research to identify and create new project initiatives.  Currently, Marshall resides in…