Dark Patterns

Stylized computer code.

Recently, I’ve found myself noticing more and more Dark Patterns on the internet, and hearing about them from friends and family.  Now, if you aren’t familiar with web design, you might find yourself wondering what a dark pattern is. First coined by UX Specialist Harry Brignall in 2010, Dark Patterns are web design tactics that are designed to trick you, the user into performing an action that you did not intend to – such as signing up for a newsletter to access content or a discount, or adding an item you did not want to your shopping cart at checkout. Almost everyone who has access to the internet has probably encountered a dark pattern at one point or another during their internet usage. Dark Patterns are everywhere! and they aren’t just limited to the darker parts of the web. Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook are among the many big tech companies that employ the use of Dark Patterns, and millions of people access services provided by those companies every day. With that introduction out of the way, let’s look at a few examples of Dark Patterns you might have encountered.

Roach Motels

So first up I want to talk about “Roach Motels”, and I’m not talking about anything you would find in the pest control aisle of your local hardware or grocery store, but an insidious practice that permeates the internet as we know it. In short, a “Roach Motel” is a website or web form that makes it very easy for you to sign up or opt-in, but extremely difficult to close your account or unsubscribe. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’re already trapped inside one and don’t even realize it – take for example Amazon or Facebook. In order to close your Amazon account, they force you to navigate down through several menus that show no context for closing your Amazon account, only to then force you to open a chat with a member of their support team who will try to talk you out of leaving. Facebook does make closing your account difficult in a similar way but then combos with another manipulative dark pattern called “Confirmshaming”.


Continuing on from our last example – when trying to close a Facebook account you might be met with a message saying that if you leave Facebook your Facebook friends will miss you. This can include images of you and friends, the people you talk to the most, even family – all displayed in a last-ditch effort to get you to change your mind. This is what we call “Confirmshaming”. This occurs when a webpage, advertisement, or e-mail attempts to guilt you into doing something – such as Facebook suggesting keeping your account open for the sake of your friends, a newsletter making you opt out with text designed to make you feel bad, or in some cases even outright insulting you. Just the other day I encountered a “free giveaway” that signed me up for a newsletter without disclosing that it would subscribe me to one, and then upon submitting my entry, sent me a message saying that they “went ahead saved me the trouble of signing up for their newsletter” by doing it for me, and that one could always unsubscribe – “If you aren’t cool”.

Bait and Switch

In the last section I mentioned that I had entered a giveaway by providing my email address, only to find out that I had inadvertently signed up for a newsletter that I at no point intended to subscribe to. This is a dark pattern called “Bait and Switch”. A “Bait and Switch” occurs when a user goes to complete an action on the web but a totally different and often undesirable action takes its place. The most famous example of “Bait and Switch” would be when Microsoft was encouraging users to update their PCs to Windows 10. At first, the update pop-ups were just friendly reminders to update their PCs, but over time the notifications changed. At one point, Microsoft even changed the close window button to instead opt directly into the installation process – which proved disastrous for many users who either weren’t prepared or properly backed up. This caused many users to lose data or brick their devices, which can be time consuming and costly, monetarily and emotionally.

Trick Questions

Picture this: You’re shopping on a website run by a young company with a hot new product after seeing an ad on Instagram. You add the item to your cart and proceed to checkout. You scroll down and fill out your personal information for shipping and payment and then you are met with a few checkboxes. You ignore the checkboxes and try to check out but it makes you review them. The first one says “Please do not send me product recommendations based on my online shopping trends. The second one says “Please send me product recommendations we think you’ll love.” You click both, eager to complete your purchase not realizing that even though you opted out of emails in the first checkbox, you opted right back in in the next one! This is an example of “Trick Questions”, another dark pattern. “Trick Questions” occur when you are tricked into giving an answer you didn’t intend to give while filling out a webpage, so that the webpage gets its desired outcome and you get mildly inconvenienced or worse.

Further Reading

These four examples are just a few of the many Dark Patterns out on the internet. To learn more about other Dark Patterns and to check out other real world examples, please check out from Harry Brignoll, the UX Specialist who coined the term “Dark Patterns”.

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