When I was at university, I took courses in subjects that didn’t seem related to design, which was my intended occupation. I enrolled in literature, philosophy, history and maths just to name a few… but the one that surprised me the most was psychology.

At that time, while reading Freud and Lacan, I never fully grasped the connection between those texts and what would be my future profession. Why should I know about the “mirror stage” of a child? Where was the connection between all this and design?

But as I studied, I slowly started to realize that the only way to design is to consider who you are designing for. You’re not designing for the company, but rather for the users who will interact with the product.

You have to get into the mind of your intended user if you want to accomplish the stated goal of UI and UX: to provide effortless and effective products to your customers. Through my studies, I realized that I needed to anticipate what my potential customers really wanted and how they might feel.

Anticipating and meeting another’s needs is the at core of good design, but unfortunately not everyone has altruism in mind when they approach designing for user experience.

All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

I was introduced to the underworld of design through an unlikely source: I once heard a story about an office building where the elevator broke.

Someone in the office printed a beautiful sign with pretty typography that read,

“We are sorry, but our elevator is not working. Maybe try the stairs.”

They put it to the side, right beneath the elevator buttons. But many workers didn’t notice the sign at all. They mindlessly went into the hall, stood in front of the elevator, and pressed the elevator buttons out of habit. Some even continued to wait for several minutes until others finally told them that it was broken.

This unexpected problem persisted until the janitor, tired of the misunderstanding, took matters into his own hands. He removed the decorative sign and replaced it with a handwritten message in the middle of the elevator doors that said,

“Out of service!”

This was the first time that I learned about dark patterns. Though it was unintentional, it works the exact same way as a dark pattern.

What is a Dark Pattern?

According to Wikipedia, a dark pattern is “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.” But I think dark patterns go far beyond that.

Some designers have hijacked design to intentionally manipulate their users into making undesirable or unwanted choices. This usually involves trying to deceive, entrap, exhaust, confuse, or shame users into doing something they don’t want to do.

Often it involves trying to get users to passively spend money they don’t want to spend. At their worst, dark patterns can dupe users into entering sensitive personal information or unintentionally paying hundreds of dollars for what was a seemingly “free” product or service.

In my opinion, designing a dark pattern is fundamentally opposed to what design is meant to be. Design that fits this description is far from putting yourself in your users’ shoes to make sure they have a good experience using your product.

On the contrary, a dark pattern is designed to trick the user.

It worries me that we’re all getting used to this kind of tricksy digital experience. Almost every web user has come across a dark pattern. Here are some examples:

How many times have you pressed on the wrong button while logging into a service and shared something via social you didn’t want to?

How many times have you been asked to put in your credit card information for a free trial or version of something?

How often have you encountered a popup that wouldn’t allow you to close out of it, only to finally realize the one way to close it is to click words that shame you by saying, “No thanks, I’m a bad person. I don’t like discounts.”

Sound familiar?

Examples of Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are, in most cases, related to UI design. Most examples online involve web pages with obscured or difficult-to-find text, for example:

Disguising the unsubscribe link to make it difficult to find
Hiding the free plan so that it is difficult to see or access

These dark patterns try to exhaust or trick the user into a subscription or service.

Yes, there are some mildly amusing cases such as the Instagram hair. But I think the most dangerous ones are the ones related to UX design.

UX & Dark Patterns

Dark patterns cause headaches for the user. Have you ever found yourself asking:

Why does Facebook constantly send popup notifications on my phone about a silly comment my friend made that is not related to me at all?

Why does Amazon automatically start charging me for Amazon Prime when it was initially free (forced continuity)? How do I stop them from doing that?

Why do I constantly get requests from strangers on LinkedIn?

Why am I still getting that annoying newsletter when I unsubscribed and removed my email from all their services?

There are many types of dark patterns out there that remind me of families of virus threats or malware. Here is a list of some of them:

Bait & Switch:

This is when a user takes an action—clicks a certain button or inserts certain information—but something entirely different and unsuspected happens instead. Windows actually did this a couple of years ago (I was one of their victims).

They set an “Upgrade to Windows 10” popup message that automatically appeared on the desktop of every Windows user. If the user dismissed the popup by clicking on its “X” button, the upgrade began! In this case, Windows switched the meaning of the closing button to behave exactly the opposite way.

Many users lost data because of this and the scandal caused Microsoft to remove the Upgrade Assistant.

Hidden Costs (a classic):

Imagine you want to buy something: You pick it, add it to your cart, and go through the entire check out process. In the final step, you see that the company has added an extra cost that was not mentioned on previous web pages. What started out as a $15 swimsuit with “free shipping” could end up as a $39 with a last-minute fee that was tacked on without warning, often after the user has already entered his/her email address and personal information.

In this case, by the time the hidden cost is revealed the user has already invested a lot of time. The designer is betting that users might continue with the process anyway, despite the extra charge, rather than having to start all over again on another site.

What We Can Do About It

There are many more examples of dark patterns (types of dark patterns). Dark patterns in UI and UX should not to be underestimated. Fortunately there are people out there trying to stop this kind of thing from happening like darkpatterns.org and Harry Brignull. They call out dark patterns across the internet in an effort to pressure companies and individuals to stop this shady practice.

If you find an example or stumble upon any of these bad habits, I would encourage you to call it out and warn the rest of the online community here.

What worries me about dark patterns is that they intentionally prey on unsuspecting or careless users. Chances are, designers and tech-savvy users—the kind of people who would read a blog about design for instance—will most likely see through such schemes. But dark patterns can be devastating and confusing for more vulnerable populations of users such as the elderly.

Dark patterns are an old technique that should not be a part of a free and open internet. If you are designer, keep in my mind how your users will experience your design. Ask yourself: Would you design it that same way for your friends and family—or for your grandma?

If your answer is yes, then keep practicing good design and stay away from the dark side. 😉

This post was co-authored by Sarabeth Flowers Lewis.

Richard Segura

Richard has been working as a designer since 1999 after finishing his degree as a Graphic Designer in Buenos Aires. Since then, Richard has been moved by his addiction to new technologies into a high proficient UX/UI Designer.