Dark Patterns


Dark patterns are tricks meant to deceive users into unwanted actions. Informed users and conscientious designers can work together to make these patterns less prevalent.


In 2015, LinkedIn was forced to pay 13 million dollars in a class action lawsuit. The issue? Those creepy emails they often send from your account without your knowledge. This tactic is what’s known as a dark pattern. Unfortunately, these patterns have been around since the beginning of the internet– and they’re likely to stick around for quite awhile. But understanding them can help you avoid being manipulated and spreading this knowledge may help build up the next coalition of users taking a large company to task.

Near Dark

Despite dark patterns harassing users since the rise of the home computer, along with similar approaches being used since at least the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 2010 that they were given a collective name. At that time, dark patterns were already widespread across the internet, being used by companies big and small to manipulate users in an ever more competitive online economy. Fortunately Harry Brignull, a user experience designer from London, had finally had enough. He created darkpatterns.org to create a library for these patterns (making them easier to identify) and a hall of shame to help users shine a spotlight on companies trying to deceive their customers.

So, what exactly are they? Dark patterns are deliberately deceptive strategies used by websites and apps to trick users into doing things they wouldn’t normally want to do,such as spamming their own email contacts to promote a service they’ve just signed up for or clicking a checkbox that was made to look as if it was a mandatory part of a form. I even wrote an entire article on the phenomenon of dark notifications, a particularly subtle and insidious dark pattern.

“Normally when you think of “bad design,” you think of the creator as being sloppy or lazy — but without ill intent. Dark patterns, on the other hand, are not mistakes. They’re carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”
Harry Brignull, in an article from The Verge

These patterns come in several different varieties, sometimes masquerading themselves as mistakes or poor design choices. Yet, let’s be clear on something, these patterns are meant to mislead users. This brings us to the inevitable question, why are companies using these tactics? The short answer: there’s too much focus on short term gains.

The Descent

“Instead of funneling our minds and time and energy into building products that are so useful that users will want to return to our sites, we’re wearing people down until they say “oh well” and stay subscribed. This is dark UX at its root.”
Sarah Drasner, in an article from CSS Tricks

How did we get to a point where businesses of all demographics are using dark patterns to trick their customers? This race to the bottom has been spurred by ever shorter deadlines, tunnel vision centered on short term growth, and the hyper-competitive environments that have come to define the tech market. Some companies have begun such a dogged pursuit of “engagement” with users that they’ve put user experience on the sideline,which is an issue much larger than dark patterns. Some of your team members may not see it that way, suggesting that these patterns may actually be useful for your company. As much as it would be nice for these patterns to be useful for your company, in the long run, it actually can hinder your company’s success.

Dark patterns are easily spun as alternative marketing tactics or temporary fixes to short term problems. It can become especially tempting to use them when dark patterns test well on certain metrics. In user experience (UX) tests that are unmoderated or solely focused on quantitative metrics, dark patterns often test well because they trick the user into the desired outcome. However, qualitative measures reveal that these patterns often evoke emotions that will drive users away from your products. Also,testing over the long term will often show higher dropout rates from actions that users were tricked into.

There’s also (inevitably) less engagement with products promoting themselves through dark patterns. Most people aren’t going to begin reading a newsletter they didn’t want in their inbox in the first place. This is why it’s critical to conduct a variety of UX tests over different periods in your product cycle. Adequate UX testing and ethical UX design both point companies away from dark patterns and toward more sustainable user experiences.

Let The Right One In

What’s the future of dark patterns? That’s a difficult question to answer.

As Mr. Brignull put it, “deception is deeply entwined with life on this planet. Insects evolved to use it, animals employ it in their behavior, and of course, we humans use it” and bad actors will always be lurking on the internet. So, in some sense, dark patterns are likely to exist for as long as the internet does.

Thankfully, there are many advocates working and speaking out against dark patterns. Google has started knocking the SEO of websites that use certain dark patterns (such as timed modals) and pretty much any UX firm is going to sway clients away from using dark patterns. Not to mention, there are legions of users taking to social media to voice their concerns.

“This is a far more complex topic than the traditional “problem and solution” paradigm that governs many design stories. It will require designers and users to collaborate on a much more intimate level, building a foundation for the ethical design of products in our society. This will take decades.”
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, in an article for Co.Design

As transparency in tech increases and companies become more accountable for their actions, the use of dark patterns is likely to decrease… or at the very least morph themselves into some new type of trick. If we can work together as users, designers, and researchers (both professional and amateur), there might be a hope for an internet,where dark patterns are little more than an annoyance, deflected by the proliferation of great user experiences.

Nathan Davis contributed to this article.


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Also published on Medium.