What is dark pattern design?

The term “dark pattern” was first coined by Harry Brignull. Harry previously worked for Spotify and is now head of UX for Smart Pension. He’s also written various articles about the field of UX, go check it out. We, however, are going to focus on the sinister world of dark patterns. Which refers to a type of web design that you would rather not encounter.

Where good design empowers users and lets them make informed decisions, dark pattern design aims to obscure and confuse. Engineering situations where the user gives up sooner than intended when it comes to privacy settings, for example. Or perhaps it uses emotionally manipulative language to coerce an action. A dark pattern can be a lot like a roach motel, easy to enter but almost impossible to get out of.

Whether it’s that annoying pop-up that just won’t quit or that email newsletter that you simply can’t unsubscribe from, you’ve almost certainly encountered dark patterns before.

Dark patterns are achieved through a variety of irritating design techniques and are frequently found on many of the ecommerce sites we all use daily.

Common dark pattern designs to spot:

Buried privacy settings

Where do your privacy settings live? What is the default set to? Why do I need to go through 3 submenus to get there?

Asking for more information than necessary

Many sites will ask you for your credit/debit card details before allowing you to try out their product or service. Not only is it a nuisance to add your card details everytime a website deems it necessary you are forfeiting a sensitive piece of data and trusting that the holder will keep it safe. And given the track record for large leakages I would think twice before handing over my card details. In addition companies will usually make it difficult for you to remove your details all together. This would be an example of a roach motel in action.

Difficulty unsubscribing from newsletters

Technically, this shouldn’t be such an issue now that GDPR has been introduced. However, it’s taking a while for the new ‘opt-in’ and easy opt out rules to filter through and often, wording is still phrased to actively trick you.

“Click here if you don’t want to not opt out of our newsletter.”

Taken from https://darkpatterns.org/hall-of-shame

Spamming your contacts with invites

Sometimes services will ask you whether it’s okay to send invites to all your contacts. Often, when we’re busy, we click click click straight through and before we know it, we’ve invited God and his granny to join some obscure social network. Moreover apps will sometimes try to hide this amongst other permission that the app needs in order to function.

Confirm Shaming

Make the user feel bad for not signing up to or purchasing your product. This is generally achieved through the use of manipulative language which shames the user into performing an action.


Look at me, I’m a freakin’ pop-up and I’m going to keep popping up until you get so sick of me that you click through to see what I’m shouting about. Bonus shame points if you make the close button so small that you would need stylus thin fingers to accurately hit it.

As a designer, how do you avoid using dark pattern designs?

This is a tricky one - after all, you’re probably designing for a purpose - to sell more of this, get sign ups to that etc… and dark patterns offer a way to speed things along nicely. Really though, if you’re someone who respects what you do and who you’re designing for, you should not be using them at all.

So, assuming you’re not using dark patterns on purpose, respect your users time and intelligence. Avoid confusing language and don’t bury your important options under a load of faff. Try to make any copy as neutral as possible, giving equal prominence to privacy options as everything else on the page. After all, if people care about their privacy (as an example), they will eventually find these option, so why hide them in the first place and risk turning that customer off your brand forever?

User testing can help you explore how your design decisions affects users. Do they understand your wording? Do they know they’re giving permission? Can they remove their sensitive info? So, give it a go, user testing can be a truly illuminating experience.

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