What are Dark Patterns?

Published: 2021-05-29

Dark Patterns are user interface elements that essentially trick you into a performing an action or behavior. This especially occurs on social media and shopping websites where companies are using deceptive UX design to trick users into giving away data, installing unnecessary software (which is primarily adware or spyware in nature), or adding their email address to their mailing list where we'll be spammed for eternity (because even though we may be lucky to find that opt-out link buried at the bottom of the email, the company's customer email database will likely be sold to marketers). Needless to say, this is an unethical practice and by definition asshole design.

Learning to identify dark patterns will help not only help you avoid being bamboozled yourself, but if you work in the industry it will also help you push back on clients that may ask you to implement one. Note: I am not a UX designer.

To give you some background, the term "dark pattern" was coined by the UX designer Harry Brignull in 2010 where he started the website darkpatterns.org with the goal of "naming and shaming deceptive user interfaces". On this site, a list of known patterns are identified but I'd like to focus on just a few that I've had this personal misfortune of dealing with.

The Roach Motel
Last year I deleted my Amazon account. I won't get into the reasons why, but I will say that it was absolutely not a straight forward process. With most online accounts, deleting or deactivating your account is a pretty straight forward process, but with Amazon I spent time navigating their settings page which more or less resembles a rat maze. In fact, I had to send them a message to Amazon Support in order to delete my account. This dark pattern is called "Roach Motel". The design makes it easy for someone to get into a situation (such as signing up for an Amazon account), but makes it very difficult to get out.

Friend Spam
Friend Spam is one that I'm sure many people have had to deal with in the early 2010's. LinkedIn requested my email address under the pretense it would be used to find people I know on LinkedIn, with the innocent-sounding button "Add to network". The reality was that they spammed ALL of my email contacts with an invite to LinkedIn while claiming to be a message from me. The result of this shady practice resulted in resulted in a $13 million dollar lawsuit.

Misdirection
This is one that's very common and that I despise. Misdirection is a dark pattern designed to focus your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from another. The most common example of this comes in the form of automatic opt-in of email spam. When signing up for an account or service, prominent marketing come-ons distract users from seeing check boxes that by default sign them up for a "updates and offers" disguised as "newsletters", memberships, or software add-ons like a browser extension. I recently encountered this when I had to install Adobe Reader on Windows 10 for work and not only got an annoying little browser add-on collecting data of who-knows-what, but also a trial for McAfee antivirus which comes with continual pop-up advertisements. Granted, I caught this right away and reinstalled, but these check-boxes were automatically ticked and fools the user into thinking they're required since they're right below the terms of service agreement.

There are several others that have been identified that I (like most) have experienced such a Privacy Zuckering which tricks you into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you intended to, or the Bait and Switch when you set up to do one thing such as purchasing a product or service that's advertised as free (or reduced price) but that it's no longer available and the page presents similar or products of higher price or less quality.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been highlighting this issue recently (which is how I became aware of it) and has partnered with Access Now, Consumer Reports, Pen America, and Harry Brignull to set up a tip line to report dark patterns.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to hey@chuck.is