Dark patterns in UX design

Dark patterns in UX design: what they are and how they work

We know UX as the art of seamlessly guiding users throughout the website with the help of design elements. However, it often happens like in a horror movie — in a dark, dark room, users step where they didn’t mean to and touch objects they didn’t want to. These moves are not random, but carefully planned by the website owner and fulfilled by the designer via dark UX patterns. Let’s discover more about dark patterns in UX design, how they work, and what their impact on customer satisfaction is.

What are dark patterns in UX design?

Dark patterns in UX are known as misleading techniques that trick users into doing something they would not consciously do. For this dark purpose, sites use website interface elements. Everything that was meant to create smooth user experiences — fonts and sizes, button placement, links, etc. — becomes deceptive to users.

For example, users can:

  • subscribe to something without knowing it
  • get unexpected products in their shopping cart
  • become a spammer to their friends without knowing it
  • click on a fake reward or message notification and start downloading an app
  • struggle to find the invisible “unsubscribe” buttons to newsletters
  • start a free trial of a product and then get their credit cards charged 

The list can go on! And the “shades of dark” differ from technique to technique. Many of them occur even with famous companies.

Some techniques are relatively innocent, and users have learned to put up with them in today’s world. For example, when installing software products, you will often see extra free software offered and already checked as something you want to install.

Another example is that everyone knows about the “small print” that hides some agreement terms you will not like — and not only on the World Wide Web. However, the use of small print, fonts, and so on, may range from something slightly tricky to overtly misleading.

Many dark UX patterns land their creators in court with huge cases — and the “dark wizards” lose astronomic sums of money. For example, the professional network LinkedIn lost $13 million in court for sending spam emails to friend’s lists on behalf of users.

A site’s reputation suffers the most when dark UX tricks become known to a wide audience. A famous designer Harry Brignull created a hall of shame for dark UX patterns on a special website. He also collected 12 common patterns of dark UX design, which we are going to view right now.

12 dark UX design patterns defined by Harry Brignull

1. Bait and switch

This trick urges a user to make an action that ends up as something different. For example, the X in the right top corner of the Windows upgrade popup does not close the window, but starts the upgrade itself.

2. Disguised ads

This dark UX design pattern masks commercial ads as content or navigation elements (for example, a download button), so the user clicks on them without knowing it.

dark patterns in UX

3. Forced continuity

Free trials with credit card details provided by the user end up charging after the trial period — with no warning or even an opt-out opportunity.

4. Friend spam

Messages come to the user’s friend lists as though from the user. A vivid example of this dark UX design pattern has been described above.

5. Hidden costs

When shopping online, users are suddenly presented with extra costs that had not been mentioned earlier.

6. Misdirection

In this dark UX pattern, users’ attention is specifically attracted to one thing or process, so they do not notice other important details presented in inconspicuous ways.

7. Price comparison prevention

Users are not provided with full information about the option prices, so they make uninformed decisions.

8. Privacy zuckering

Harry Brignull named this trick after Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, its essence is making the user disclose their personal details without realizing this.

9. Roach motel

This pattern is about scenarios that are easy to get into but very hard or impossible to get out of — for example, a subscription. 

10. Sneak into a basket

Shopping items suddenly appear in the user’s cart in addition to what they were really buying.

11. Trick questions

These are questions that look like they are asking one thing but, on a closer look, it turns out they are asking another. For example, a series of opt-in/opt-out checkboxes with purposely confusing language.

12. Confirm shaming

In this dark UX pattern, users are made to feel guilty if they do not opt in for something.

dark patterns in UX design

To recap

It is clear that UX design elements should highlight what is important for you. While creating smooth user experiences, they still should lead users to your achieving your goals — i.e. conversions on your site.

However, this all should be transparent and ethical. As opposed to dark patterns in UX design, there are plenty of “fair” techniques that will engage your users without having them feel deceived. This is the way to long-term customer loyalty. So come to the bright side!

Contact our digital agency, and our UX designers are ready for awesome designs that reach your goals and make your users happy!


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