Dark patterns seem to lurk everywhere these days. You‘re shopping online when suddenly – bam! – an expensive subscription gets added to your cart. Or you‘re rushing through a "Quick Sign-Up" only to find you‘ve agreed to share tons of personal data.
These aren‘t glitches. They‘re carefully engineered design tricks meant to deceive and manipulate us into doing things that ultimately benefit companies at our expense.
Also known as "deceptive design" or "malicious UI," dark patterns have become so pervasive that research suggests the average person encounters them on a daily basis. But learning to recognize these sneaky tricks is the first step to avoiding them.
In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll shine a light on dark patterns, from what they are to how you can spot and resist them. You‘ll walk away better equipped to protect your privacy, your money, and most importantly, your choices.
What Are Dark Patterns and Where Did They Come From?
The term "dark pattern" was first coined in 2010 by UK-based user experience (UX) specialist Harry Brignull. He defined dark patterns as:
"A user interface designed or manipulated with the substantial effect of subverting or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice."
In other words, dark patterns are design elements specifically engineered to trick, nudge, or deceive users into taking certain actions that they likely didn‘t intend to take. Actions that end up benefitting the company, often at the user‘s expense.
Brignull dedicated an entire website, DarkPatterns.org, to documenting examples of dark patterns and discussing how UX/UI professionals can design more ethical interfaces.
While the term itself is new, the practice of sneaking hidden persuasion techniques into design is not. Long before the internet, advertisers used misleading fine print and emotional manipulation to sell products.
But online interfaces enabled a whole new playground for stealthy influence techniques. Early pop-up ads and email spam showed how easy digital tools made it to distract, nag and overwhelm users.
Meanwhile, the rise of analytics and conversion rate optimization made testing and tweaking interfaces to maximize desired user actions more systematic. And a business model dependent on hoovering up user data for monetization took hold.
Dark patterns emerged out of this perfect storm as an incredibly powerful way for companies to drive user behavior that benefits their bottom line.
Some of the earliest and most blatant examples came from e-commerce retailers and social networks. But nowadays dark patterns are ubiquitous across industries. Even companies assumed to be "ethical" get caught leveraging deception to boost sign-ups or sales.
"These design tactics prey on basic human cognition – frustration, confusions, misdirection," says Edward Barnard, UX researcher. "The companies using them know exactly how effective they can be."
Why Do Companies Use Dark Patterns?
At face value, dark patterns design seems counterintuitive. Won‘t deliberately deceiving customers destroy trust and damage the brand over time?
In the long run, yes. But many companies get blinded by potential short-term gains. They tell themselves (and investors) the ends justify the means.
Dark patterns offer an irresistible temptation to deliver quick wins on key metrics like:
- Increased sign-ups and conversion rates
- More purchases and higher cart sizes
- Bigger opt-in rates to data sharing and marketing
- Lower opt-out and cancellation rates
When executives see how sly design tricks boost quarterly projections, it‘s easy to ignore longer-term brand erosion.
This prioritization of short term metrics over user needs permeates corporate cultures. "There‘s often intense pressure from leadership to deliver results by any means," a UI designer told us anonymously. "Dark patterns get built right into our North Star."
Nonetheless, evidence clearly shows dark patterns destroy trust in brands and degrade user experiences over time:
- 38% of users feel misled if a site uses dark patterns, per Princeton research
- 28% abandon a site completely if they feel manipulated by dark patterns
- 46% uninstall apps caught using dark patterns, per Deloitte
- 51% of people Critical Mass surveyed say dark patterns permanently damage brand trust
"Seemingly small design decisions can have an outsized negative impact on people at scale," emphasizes Kat Zhou, head of UX at BaseDash.
In other words, dark patterns may appear effective in the short-term but ultimately backfire by undermining customer loyalty.
So why do companies keep using them? Because Metrics > Morals. But users can fight back through education and advocacy.
12 Most Commonly Used Dark Pattern Tricks
Dark patterns appear in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are 12 common tricks and traps to watch out for:
1. Bait and Switch
This classic technique lures in users under false pretenses – a prized product is touted but switches last minute to something less desirable. Or an exciting offer disappears from the checkout cart.
Example: An airline advertises cheap fares but they‘re no longer available when you go to book. Only pricier seats remain.
Language designed to provoke guilt or social pressure sways users into opting in or staying subscribed.
Example: "Are you sure? Your donation makes such a difference for these animals in need."
Visuals, copy or page layout intentionally draw attention away from unwanted action like extra charges.
Example: Bright orange "Continue" button distracts from a pre-checked box to add insurance.
4. Hidden Costs
Revealing additional fees or charges late in the checkout flow hopes users will be less likely to abandon their cart and progress made.
Example: A processing fee gets added right before the final checkout button after filling out billing.
5. Price Comparison Prevention
Retailers intentionally make it difficult to compare bundle prices or pick individual elements, hiding the most economical choice.
Example: A cable provider only shows TV, internet and phone bundles without pricing breakdowns for each.
6. Sneak Into Basket
Unwanted items get silently added to carts and purchases in hopes users won‘t notice.
Example: A more expensive phone case gets defaulted into carts along with the phone.
7. Disguised Ads
Ads disguise themselves as other page elements like download buttons to increase clicks.
Example: A "Download" button goes to an app store rather than directly downloading software.
8. Friend Spam
Under guise of inviting friends, the service spams your contacts to spread itself – without easy opt out.
Example: "Let your friends know about us!" results in unsolicited emails sent from you.
9. Privacy Zuckering
Long confusing privacy policies and settings make it intentionally hard to control data sharing. Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Example: Buried settings spread across multiple pages to turn off ad tracking and data collection.
10. Roach Motel
It‘s made intentionally easy for users to get into certain paths (like subscriptions) then hard to get back out.
Example: Cancellation requires calling an obscure phone number and navigating a frustrating menu tree.
11. Forced Continuity
Sites force users into continuity, like demanding a reason to quit a free trial or extra clicks to reject an upsell.
Example: You must select a reason from a dropdown before being allowed to cancel a subscription.
12. Trick Questions
Language lures users into opting into something more onerous than it initially seems by concealing key facts.
Example: "Yes I‘d like to support this cause" signs you up for recurring vs. one-time donation.
Real World Examples of Dark Patterns Across Industries
|Company||Tactic Used||What Happened|
|Friend Spam||Message sent to contacts looked like it came directly from the user, deceiving more clicks. Settled with FTC.|
|Amazon||Sneak into Basket||Defaulted more expensive batteries into carts along with lower-priced items. Removed after backlash.|
|Ticketmaster||Bait & Switch||Better seats shown but not actually available when users went to purchase. Fined $4.55M.|
|Privacy Zuckering||Long confusing account and ad settings made turning off tracking difficult. Simplified after complaints.|
|Wells Fargo||Roach Motel||Forced employees to open unwanted accounts but made closing them again almost impossible. Fined $185M.|
And those are just a few notorious examples. Unfortunately most companies experiment with dark patterns and few get caught or change.
Is There Legislation Banning Dark Patterns?
Laws prohibiting or restricting dark patterns are in early stages, but momentum is building.
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission can already file charges against companies using dark patterns under Section 5 guidelines against "unfair or deceptive practices." However, no blanket ban exists yet.
California leads state efforts. In 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act became the first law to:
- Specifically define dark patterns
- Ban their use in denying user requests to opt-out of data sales
The later California Privacy Rights Act further outlawed dark patterns for obtaining any consent about personal data.
But enforcement remains challenging. UX designers walk a fine line between influence and deception. And new dark pattern variations constantly emerge.
"Legislation helps but the onus remains heavily on users to identify and resist dark pattern persuasion in the moment," says Stacy Gray, policy director at Consumer Reports. "Public awareness is critical."
How to Spot and Resist Dark Patterns
While no one is immune to dark patterns‘ manipulation, following certain best practices helps detect and counter them:
Don‘t rush when clicking, entering personal details, or making purchases. Take time to thoroughly read all text and evaluate page layouts. Dark patterns leverage automation and impulse.
Pinpoint Visual Tricks
Watch for elements intended to draw attention away from other options, like bright colors, animation, and unusual placements. Toggle defaults off.
Read Everything Carefully
Don‘t skim or make assumptions. Actually read all words on forms and pop-ups, no matter how long. Check for sneaky defaults, pre-checks or auto-renewal terms.
Use Privacy Settings
Restrict ad tracking and opt out of data sharing when possible. Turn off location services not needed. Use anti-tracking browser extensions.
Avoid Free Trial Traps
Read all terms before signing up and immediately cancel unwanted trials or services. Use temporary card numbers if concerned about cancellations.
Use multiple sites to evaluate product bundles and pricing structures. Don‘t assume one retailer provides the best deal.
Leverage Password Managers
Generate unique, strong passwords for every site and app to minimize harm if trapped into an undesirable subscription or trial. Enable two-factor authentication when possible.
Report Abusive Experiences
Notify brands using dark patterns through official channels and file complaints with organizations like the Better Business Bureau, FTC, and state attorney general.
Share dark pattern encounters on social media to warn others and hold brands accountable. Support consumer protection groups working to outlaw manipulative designs.
How You Can Fight Back Against Dark Patterns
- Call it out – Report brands using dark patterns on social media to damage their reputation. Name and shame them.
- Refuse to engage – Delete apps or abandon sites caught deceiving you. Don‘t let metrics reward their behavior.
- Report it – File official complaints with the FTC, state attorney general, BBB and other consumer protection groups about deceptive interfaces.
- Leave reviews – Give low ratings on app stores and review sites when encountering dark patterns. Warn others.
- Spread awareness – Share this article and others to help more people recognize dark pattern tricks on the web and in apps.
- Support legislation – Get involved with consumer advocacy groups like Consumer Reports pushing for dark pattern prohibition. Voice your concerns to elected officials.
- Demand better – Tell brands you refuse to engage with companies utilizing manipulative designs and anti-user practices. Economic pressure drives change.
The more we collectively call out and reject dark patterns, the more businesses will reform. Your actions create real impact.
The Bottom Line
Dark patterns are a growing threat all digital consumers now face on a routine basis. But recognizing the deceitful tricks deployed against us is the critical first step to avoiding manipulation.
Forearmed with knowledge, we can move through digital experiences with greater confidence in our ability to spot – and resist – dark pattern traps. We can demand businesses respect user needs over metrics.
It will be an ongoing battle as sites and apps keep testing the ethical line between influence and deception. But an informed public can push the tide toward more transparent design. Our choices and voices have power.
So be vigilant, take your time, and assume positive intent from companies … until they give you reason not to.