Dark Patterns — Deceptive UX design

A dark pattern defined as instances where designers use their knowledge of human behavior and the desires of end-users to manipulates human cognition to implement deceptive functionality

Harry Brignull, who defined a dark pattern as “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things.”

For a pattern to be necessarily dark, it must have a dark intention of the persuader which is not in favor of the user. The very subjective ethical nature can be addressed if we can determine how significantly the pattern affects the users and their experience of the product.

Dark patterns are bits of deceptive UX that pressure, trick, or mislead users into doing things they don’t want to do. Sometimes, dark patterns abuse the principles of UX Psychology that we’ve talked about in this series.

Then and Now

Dark patterns have been around for as long as we can remember; they aren’t limited to the web. We can experience in Some credit card statements, Invoices, Offer Brouchers, etc.

In terms of web now, Dark Patterns are much more complex and sneaky in nature. XYZ company and its automated follow-up email reminders on a new user’s behalf to any contacts harvested from his or her webmail accounts, which are presented in such a way that they appear as if they came directly from the user.

In the late 2000s, there was this huge wave of XYZ spamming our inbox with dozens of follow-up emails through our contacts to “expand our professional network” and the worse part was that they were virtually impossible to get out of. Thankfully, this pattern was recognized and presented in San Jose’s US District Court (Perkin v. XYZ, 2014) with the key issue being spam.

Type of Dark Patterns

Basket Sneaking

Sneaking occurs when a website adds extra costs and fees without telling the user. Usually, the website withholds these additional costs until the last possible second, in the hopes that the user won’t notice and sometime they will add related items to the cart.

Hidden Costs

Hidden costs have been around for as long as paid services, but they’re especially deceptive online. On the internet, many websites can keep these fees hidden until the last possible second and slap on an ambiguous label.

Hidden Subscription

Many apps especially mobile games will rope you in with a “free” label before hitting you upside the head with a hidden subscription. More devious websites will disguise a subscription as a one-time purchase. That way, the shopper doesn’t even realize that they’ve subscribed until it’s too late.

Fake Urgency

However, that “1 in 80” statistic does not describe all websites with countdown timers. That statistic exclusively describes eCommerce websites with fake countdown timers. Countdown timers can be stressful, but fake countdown timers are downright deceptive.

Sales With Ambiguous Deadlines

If your offer is only available for a limited time, tell the user when it ends. Don’t list a sale without a deadline. Sales with ambiguous deadlines are problematic because they create an entirely false sense of urgency.


Misdirection is one of the worst dark patterns. It occurs whenever websites intentionally sway a user toward a certain choice.

Confirm shaming

Confirm shaming is most common in email lists and popup notifications. It shames users into confirming, hence the name. It uses tricky, emotional language to make the user feel bad about not making a choice.

Visual Interference

“Visual interference” describes the use of visuals to trick the user. This category is very broad, but very common outside of eCommerce websites. Emails use visual interference all the time. Instead of putting the unsubscribe link somewhere visible, they hide it away in the hopes that the user won’t see it.

Trick Questions

Even forms aren’t safe from dark patterns. In fact, they’re especially vulnerable to manipulative design. Checking one box opts out of the newsletter while checking the other opts in. Unless the user reads carefully, they may check the wrong box. The user doesn’t want emails, but they may get them because of the way the text is written.

Pressured Selling

On one hand, it can add genuine value to a customer’s experience. The Food App gives the user an option to add extra cheese or something that features could be very useful.

However, the paper’s taxonomy defined pressured selling as “asymmetric” (pushing something pricy the user wouldn’t have purchased otherwise) and “partially covert.” In the context of the study’s sample, these criticisms make sense.

Fake Social Proof

Social proof can be very powerful, but when companies don’t have the numbers to pull it off, they fake it. Instead of letting that “0” work against them, they generate numbers. In fact, it’s so easy and common that you can find simple instructions like these pretty much anywhere.

Testimonials Of Uncertain Origin

A surprisingly high number of testimonials are completely fake–the researchers searched several testimonials and found exact matches with different customer names on several sites.

False Scarcity

Scarcity, like social proof and urgency, isn’t always bad. However, it becomes a problem when websites lie about how scarce an item really is.

Sometimes, companies run low on an item–that’s just how business works. But it’s a bit suspicious when their entire inventory is almost entirely gone–especially if it isn’t the holidays.

Deceptive High-Demand Messages

High-Demand messages function in the same way, but they’re a bit more manipulative. “Low stock” indicates that items are so popular, the company is running low. “High-demand” means the same thing, but it’s even more ambiguous.

Forced Action

Forced action is a more extreme version of misdirection. Instead of misrepresenting an option, it forces the user to choose it.

While some websites make canceling your account very difficult, others prevent you from using the website without making an account.

Bait And Switch

Wouldn’t it be awful if pressing the “X” button on a window forced you to install software? That’s what happened in 2016 when this pop-up appeared on windows computers everywhere.

Normally clicking “X” closes the window, but in this case, it updated your computer to Windows 10.

Patterns like this one are called “Bait and Switch.” In every case of Bait and Switch, the user clicks a button expecting one thing, but gets an undesirable result.

Privacy Zuckering

Privacy Zuckering, named after Mark Zuckerberg, occurs whenever a website tricks you to share information. In most cases, the user has to agree to abusive terms of service.

Don’t think Zuckering is a problem? Stack Overflow makes you surrender certain legal rights, but nothing in its UX indicates that such a significant agreement has taken place.

Dark Patterns for good

They are neither good nor bad. Rather, they’re powerful or weak. Shouting “Snake!” is powerful, When someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded area, they might save lives or they might cause unnecessary panic. The power that comes from exclaiming the word “Snake” can be used for good or evil.

Similarly, the concepts behind most dark patterns are powerful: most can be found in negative as well as positive user experiences.

Microsoft Word offers a positive user experience, by not only asking if the user wants to save changes but also by highlighting “Save.” This is an interaction design pattern known as a smart default: for a busy user who hits the Enter key before reading the pop-up, Microsoft’s thoughtfulness is the only thing stopping them from losing hours of work.

Amazon uses the same interaction to allow users to enter a “default” credit card. When the user enters new credit card information, a popup appears asking “would you like to make this the default credit card?” “Yes” is highlighted. It doesn’t hurt the user if he accidentally makes this his default card …but it doesn’t necessarily help either.

This means the same interaction that yielded a “positive” user experience in Microsoft Word creates a “neutral” user experience on Amazon

The same interaction design pattern has an equivalent dark pattern. Most companies suggesting users sign up for a newsletter are not doing it to help the user. In the newsletter sign up for an XYZ company below, “Yes” is highlighted as it was in Microsoft Word but this streamlines the business’s goal, not the user’s.

Using Patterns for good

A website that employed the “bait and switch” dark pattern. Where they advertised “free cars!” users found themselves facing fees. What was so powerful, though, was the word choice: By considering what they could actually offer for free, such as “free car advice!” I was able to maintain the power of offering something free without, importantly, lying to users.

How content strategy is concerned with two issues: aligning our content with our business goals and helping users accomplish their own. Content Strategy and UX Design have this in common, and that’s the crux of the issue with dark patterns: dark patterns align content/interactions with business goals, without helping users accomplish their own.

The key to learning good UX from dark patterns is implementing them to advance the user’s goal. (Prerequisite: identify the user’s goal.)

Ask twice

There are two reasons the “trick question” dark pattern works.

Make it user-centered: Asking the same question twice makes it twice as likely that users will do the “right” thing, whether that is saving their work, staying on the site, or creating a secure password. Use this tool wisely — there’s no reason to ask users twice if they want to change text color, for example, but when it seems important to ask a question twice, make sure the question is phrased the same way both times and the preselected response is the one that benefits the user.

Hide unimportant information

Hidden costs are a frequently used dark pattern on airlines and cell phones.

Make it user-centered: While cost is important, there is plenty of information on a site that is not, and only serves to distract. Take a page out of the dark patterns book and only highlight useful information.

Add to the shopping cart, helpfully

The “Sneak into Basket” dark pattern is reminiscent of a three-year-old on a shopping trip who helpfully adds candy bars, cereals, and anything-else-within-reach to Mommy’s shopping cart.

Make it user-centered: Amazon already does a user-centered version of this. Instead of adding items to the cart, they advertise related items immediately after something has been added to the cart. Alternatively, if you are absolutely certain that every iPad purchased needs an iPad cover, make it obvious.

Spamming, or sharing?

Friend spam is a highly controversial dark pattern, due to the feeling of invasiveness caused by an application messaging family and friends. What’s worse, friend spam acts like a virus, emailing, tweeting, or Facebook status updating without permission.

Make it user-centered: The problem with friend spam is that the application doesn’t ask for permission. The easy fix is one, preselected question: “Would you like to tell your friends and family about us?” Anything that provides choice is helpful in this situation.

There are no easy solutions or alternatives to dark patterns. Industry insiders like Bunker (2013) have suggested that designers should have an ethical code of conduct where privacy, honesty, and respect should be the core elements.

Nir Eyal came up with a more logical solution. He speaks about the power of persuasive design and explains how a good understanding of cognitive science can add value to the user’s experience. He spoke about the ‘Hook Model’ that provides the designers with the power to build habit-forming products. He realizes that his model can be misused and hence spoke about the morality of it. He believes that manipulation is an experience crafted to change behavior and hence offered designers the ‘Manipulation Matrix’. This matrix, however, does not try to answer which businesses are moral or which will succeed.

Any expansion of value-centered methods must take into account the needs, constraints, and desires of practitioners. This may require more sensitivity to the contexts and locations where ethical concerns might arise, the number of power practitioners may have to affect change on a strategic level and other mediating factors.

Design Something that is consistent with your customer’s world not your company ‘s worldview

Thanks for reading. 🙏




An enthusiastic UX designer optimizing various design principles and research methods to make products usable to a wide-arrayed customer base.

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Naveen Bodapati

Naveen Bodapati

An enthusiastic UX designer optimizing various design principles and research methods to make products usable to a wide-arrayed customer base.

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