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User Experience Center


Dark Patterns: How Manipulative Web Design Drives Customers Away (Part 1)

by Soy Mamo

You’ve probably heard of the infamous “dark web”, but did you know that there’s another sinister underbelly of the Internet lurking in plain sight? One that’s perfectly legal? 


Dark Patterns refer to the ways websites can be designed to psychologically trick us into doing things we never meant to. Have you ever accidentally made a purchase with one wrong click, or signed up for a free trial only to realize months later you’ve unknowingly been charged many times over for that service? 


Let’s take a closer look at this manipulative practice and why businesses should avoid it. This blog is part 1 of a two-part series on Dark Patterns.  My colleague, Shaniah Tullis in part 2 will provide examples of common dark patterns. 


The Past 


App & website users want simple experiences that don’t involve too many steps to accomplish their goals. 


Multi-disciplinary teams of designers, developers and other related professionals have worked to create seamless user interfaces for business websites. But often, their focus is only tangentially related to the user- simplifying transactional processes to ensure the smoothest possible transition of consumers; money to corporate coffers.  


In 2010, UX Specialist Harry Brignull created an online repository under the name “Dark Patterns” which acted as “a pattern library with the specific goal of naming and shaming deceptive user interfaces (aka “dark patterns”) and the companies that use them.”  


The Present 


When browsing the web, we often enjoy the illusory free will, but the proliferation of dark patterns has littered our Internet experience with virtual booby traps that reduce the amount of free will users are able to bring to bear on their online transactions. Here are a few warning signs that you’re encountering web designs utilizing dark patterns:  


  • It’s far easier to sign up for an account than to cancel it 

  • It’s difficult to locate how to Unsubscribe from a mailing list 

  • You have to reach out to the company personally to facilitate account termination  

  • The button to stay with a service is visually more prominent than cancel it 

  • An “extra” gets snuck into your shopping cart that you must opt-out of (warranties, insurance) 

  • You’re made to feel guilty for choosing to unsubscribe  

  • Marketing opt-ins for additional messaging are selected by default 


The Future  


Although dark patterns are interfaces created by people and therefore are created deliberately, UX designers aren’t necessarily evil geniuses twirling their mustaches and thinking of diabolical ways to trick people.  


Designers are hired to make systems that maximize profit and minimize losses, so naturally, making buying as easy and attractive as possible supports commercial goals.  


However, educating netizens about dark patterns can not only help them avoid falling prey to these predatory techniques, but it can also prompt web designers and those they collaborate with to utilize better ways of increasing engagement without over complicating the 


Dark Patterns Hurt Everyone 


If you’re a conscientious business owner, ideally you want your relationship with your customers to be symbiotic, not parasitic.  


One of the hardest things a business must do is build and maintain customers’ trust and faith in the organization’s reputation. Even if a company manages to utilize dark patterns to trick users into contributing to corporate goals, it doesn’t take long before people become wise to disreputable methods and leave them behind to patronize more ethical organizations.  


If you’ve ever been bombarded with a barrage of unwanted emails from a business you don’t even remember agreeing to hear from, you know that this method doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth.  


Dark patterns expert Harry Brignull himself pointed out a perfect example of this: 


The website Experts Exchange could have been a great platform to find answers to tech questions. But their page was designed to appear as if the answer you clicked for is hidden behind a paywall (the real answer is hidden at the bottom of the page). They figured out how to get an SEO boost while also tricking people into paying for a subscription.  


Today, Experts Exchange could have been one of the leading websites in its sector but, everyone got fed up with these pesky practices and found better sites.  


The Bottom Line: Don’t get greedy. Ideal interfaces make buying quick and easy—ONLY for those who actually want the product.  


Make sure you aren’t using dark patterns, whether knowingly or unknowingly.  


Following this blog post, my fellow researcher Shaniah Tullis will be describing in detail some of the dark patterns that are commonly used on the web.  Stay tuned, follow Bentley User Experience Center on Twitter and LinkedIn to learn when Part 2 will be ready. 


Soy Mamo
Research Associate

Soyam is a Research Associate at the User Experience Center. Before joining the team, she worked on freelance projects for organizations and companies such as Mission of Hope as a System Architect and All Black All Day as a UI Designer. In these roles, she designed the aesthetics to be implemented within the website using various design applications. She also developed conceptual ERD models and UML diagrams for enterprise/organization solutions while also using RDBMS for database development.

Soyam holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems(with a Computer Science concentration) and Business Administration. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.