Dark Patterns: May the force be with UX
When the planet Alderaan is destroyed in A New Hope, Obi-Wan senses “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced”. Now, like another Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry Brignull has felt a disturbance in the Force and upon realizing that Dark Patters pose a threat to the whole UX community, gives a heads-up to all of us through his Dark Patterns wiki.
Designers as architects of choices have the power to influencing human behavior by shaping the user’s available options. But as always, with great power comes great responsibility. The designer can easily step over the mark and slide to the dark side by applying Dark Patterns.
Dark Patterns refer to types of web design techniques that are deliberately designed to mislead users into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Unlike bad design choices that might confuse the user (Anti-patterns), Dark Patterns are crafted with great attention to detail, and a solid understanding of human psychology, to trick users.
Dan Lockton, a specialist in designing for behavior change, would call these practices Machiavellian practices. Evil design patters, where the ‘end justifies the mean’. Practices that will often be considered unethical, but nevertheless are commonly used to control and influence consumers. Although Dark Patterns are seldom talked about, they’re so near ubiquitous that you’d recognize almost all of the examples: online retailers sneaking something into your shopping cart, services that are easy to opt in to but near impossible to opt out of, tricky checkboxes that conceal whether you’re signing up for spam or opting out, and so forth. Practices that frustrate us all, but unfortunately are followed by big brands (airlines, banks and telephone carriers) that are supposed to care for their customers. In any case, we’d like to mention some of them hoping that you’ll never follow them yourself.
Sneak into basket
A common scam, when the user tries to purchase an item, but somewhere in the process the site sneaks an additional item into the online shopping basket, often by having an opt-out button or checkbox on an earlier page. Imagine someone was trying to do that to you in a supermarket! However, in the digital world we are accustomed to such practices. For instance, a question appears somewhere in the small print during the ordering process asking if you wish to purchase travel insurance and the checkbox defaults to “Yes”. European websites must allow you to go back through the ordering process and change any details you wish to change before making payment.
An ipad case has slipped into the basket, but at least it’s mentioned (source: darkpatterns.org)
Trick questions refer to sneaky questions that are typically in the checkout process and at first glance appear to ask one thing, but if read carefully, ask another thing entirely. This trick takes advantage of users who normally scan pages, instead of reading them thoroughly see Steve Krug.
Any choice other than “No Travel Insurance Required” from the long list on the dropdown menu will result in paying for extra travel insurance they may not have wanted.
An ingenious term, coined by Tim Jones in an EFF article “Evil Interfaces” referring to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckering is the act of creating deliberately confusing jargon and user-interfaces that trick your users into sharing more info about themselves than they really want to.
Making it hard for users to set their privacy settings (source: darkpatterns.org)
The Roach Motel
A design that “makes it very easy for a user to get into a certain situation, but then makes it hard for them to get out of it when they realize it is undesirable.” The classic example is an email newsletter subscription form where it is typically easy to subscribe, but much more effort is needed to unsubscribe.
Easy to unsubscribe, but how to unsubscribe for Wired? (source: darkpatterns.org)
Thirsty for more?
If you want to learn more about the Dark Patterns you can watch Harry’s slideshare or visit and contribute at the Dark Patterns wiki. Got some examples you’d like to point out? We’d love to hear them and forward them to Harry. May the force be with you, fellow Jedi!