29th June 2018

The rise of the dark side? Dark patterns in UX

James Matthews, Principal Consultant

10 minute read

Whilst interacting with a website many of us will regularly encounter a UX ‘dark pattern’ and not even realise. But the next time you struggle to cancel your account on a company’s website or unsubscribe from an email you’re at the receiving end of a dark pattern.


Have you ever accidentally signed up to an additional product or service whilst purchasing something online? You could be a dark pattern victim. Have you clicked on a button only to find it takes you off to an ad? Yep, a dark pattern.


As UX Practioners we obviously see UX as a force for good. We take pride in creating intuitive digital experiences that are a pleasure to use. After all, if our client’s customers enjoy using the website or application we create, ultimately our client’s business grows.


And a large part of our job is to understand who our client’s customers are, their motivations for interacting with the brand and their behaviour within that interaction. We need to do this in order to give those customers an experience that meets their needs. However, in understanding how to meet a customer’s needs we can also learn how to manipulate them.


As Steve Krug noted in his renowned book, Don’t Make Me Think , a lot of visitors simply won’t read website instructions, or hunt for the next step they are supposed to take. So it’s easy for Web Designers to capitalise on this by sneaking in dark patterns.


Harry Brignull, founder of the website darkpatterns.org defines a dark pattern as “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.”


Dark Patterns are created with a solid understanding of human psychology and the typical online behaviour of users, and unsurprisingly they don’t have the user’s interest in mind.


Here’s just a few of the worst offending dark patterns we’re all increasingly experiencing online:

Roach Motel

Named, rather obscurely, after American company Black Flag’s Roach Motel insect trap (famous for the tagline, “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out!”) ‘Roach Motel’ describes a common tactic that’s been employed by companies for years; making it easy for customers to ‘get in’ but incredibly difficult to ‘get out’.


Hiding information about how to cancel an account or subscription and then making the process seem awfully convoluted to customers are both examples of a ‘Roach Motel’ tactic.


For example, BuySubscriptions.com allows you to subscribe to a number of different magazines, with the monthly fee directly debiting from your account. Despite being able to sign up to as many magazines as you like at the click of a button, to cancel you have to pick up the phone and wait to get through to their customer service department.


The most common ‘Roach Motel’ tactic is to hide the unsubscribe link within dense footer copy in emails and, should a user find the link, bamboozling them with additional options on the ‘unsubscribe’ landing page.


A good, if slightly dated example of this is Moneysupermarket.com. Brazen in their approach to their unsubscribe page, they actually offer the user more subscriptions to opt in to followed by an advert for a subscription wine delivery service, before finally allowing a user to enter their email address and unsubscribe at the bottom of the page. 


A company should aim to give equal weight to an opposite action. If a customer can sign up at the click of a button they should be able to cancel with the same click.


And when so many companies manage to do this so well, it’s a shame that some are still taking a rather petty approach to facilitating cancellation. If a customer wants to cancel a service, they’re not going to abandon hope just because a company deliberately makes a phone number or email address hard to find.

Forced continuity

Companies offering subscription-based services often tempt a user to sign up with the offer of a free trial but then ask for credit card details as part of the sign up process. The terms and conditions will often state that payments will automatically be taken from a customer’s account after the first month.


Obviously this is okay if you’re on top of your diary management, but not so good if, like me, you don’t notice the payment being taken from your account until it’s too late.


And companies are betting on the very fact customers will forget to cancel their membership before their trial ends. At a minimum, it means a month’s worth of fees for the company before a customer realises and cancels the service.


It’s easy to understand why some companies ask for payment details before a free trial. if you have an engaged user who is interested in your service then why not encourage them to provide this information up front?

But as a potential customer why aren’t we questioning why a company is so adamant to get our bank details up front? If the service being offered is so fantastic, surely a customer will be happy to spend a couple of minutes completing their registration at the end of a trial period. And why don’t we see more companies notifying customers by email when their trial is about to end and a first payment is due to leave their account?


Our job as UX specialists is to facilitate a user’s goals by deciding what action they need to take at each stage in a journey and deciding the best design layout to facilitate this.


A dark pattern can arise, however, when a company attempts to manipulate a user’s choice through design, leading them down a specific path by signposting options that are beneficial to the company (or hiding those that aren’t), but not necessarily the user.


Many in the UX community hold Virgin America’s website up as a fantastic example of user-centred design. As a user is guided through the step-by-step booking process they are shown the available seats on their flight – often with additional pricing – and instructed to pick a seat.

Although a ‘skip’ link is shown after the instruction, it’s not made obvious to the user that this is an optional step and they’re not obliged to choose a seat at an additional cost. And the use of the word ‘Skip’ could lead some users to think they’re only temporarily deferring seat selection.


Whilst this is certainly an example on the lighter side of a ‘dark pattern’, giving equal weight to the options available to a user would make them feel less like they’re being encouraged to go down a certain path during a linear booking flow.

Bait and switch

‘Bait and Switch’ describes when a company presents a key action or goal and then slyly inserts a secondary action before the goal, almost always as part of a sales technique.


Sports Direct suffered a tidal wave of negative PR recently for adding a Sports Direct magazine and mug to a customer’s basket in the final checkout step and then (very kindly) ticking a tick box on the customer’s behalf to say that they’d like to receive the items for an additional £1. By making the text box recessive and adding £1 to the order total at the same time as the postage and packing cost many customers didn’t realise they’d ordered the extra items until they received their order in the post a few days later.

This cheeky tactic was picked up by national newspapers and broadcasters and did additional damage to an already under-fire brand.


After all, these days a user experience is a brand experience and even the most loyal of customers can quickly turn on a brand if they feel they’re using sneaky of underhand tactics online. A dark pattern approach to UX brings with it the risk of reducing a brand’s credibility. But if a company creates an experience that is fair, honest and in the interests of the user they’re far more likely to increase customer loyalty and ultimately create brand advocates.

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