How to spot and avoid dark patterns in your design work

Dark patterns are used quite widely across the web. They are often used tactically to get users to do something they didn’t intend to do; to force users into a pattern that they may not have chosen to follow otherwise.

While some dark patterns have now been made illegal in some countries, there are many that aren’t. Many fall into legal grey areas. This means that companies are still using these patterns regularly to exploit users across the web.

What types of dark patterns exist?

There are many different dark patterns in use out there. This list from IONOS is quite expansive but likely isn’t exhaustive, with companies finding new methods of exploiting data. For ease, I have included the list below.

Roach Motel

The idea behind this type of Dark Pattern is to lead users quickly into a particular situation and then make it really hard for them to get back out. Companies often use this trick to get people to sign up for premium subscriptions. The sign-up process is fast and simple, but the cancellation options are usually hidden in some part of the website where the user wouldn’t naturally think to look.

Bait and Switch

This type of Dark Pattern is a kind of decoy tactic. The user thinks they’re doing one thing but ends up doing something completely different.

Trick Questions

This kind of ambiguous question is often found on forms, the idea is to trick people into giving an answer they didn’t really mean to give. This type of Dark Pattern relies on the fact that most users will simply scan a text rather than going over it with a fine-tooth comb.

Sneak into Basket

Here, sites sneakily add items to a customer’s basket by incorporating preselected checkboxes or confusing opt-out choices in the checkout process.

Disguised Ads

Disguised ads are adverts that are designed to look like something else and thus trick the user into clicking on them. For example, they’re often made to look like part of the page content or the navigation pane.

Privacy Zuckering

This term was introduced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and was named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Privacy Zuckering involves persuading users to disclose more than they really want to. For example, Facebook was known for making its privacy settings deliberately confusing so as to get as much data from users as possible. The General Data Protection Regulation has since made it harder for companies to obtain data through fraudulent practices. For example, you now have to actively consent to the processing of your personal data.

Hidden Costs

Have you noticed that online shops often don’t tell you about taxes, delivery costs or other additional charges until you get to the very last page? These sites are relying on the fact that most users tend to complete their order anyway by the time they’ve got to this point.

Price Comparison Prevention

To make it hard for consumers to compare prices, online retailers often hide the individual prices of products, such as by selling bundles of goods or services without indicating the corresponding unit price. Mobile phone providers were well known for using this type of Dark Pattern as far back as the early 2000s.

Misdirection

The purpose of this Dark Pattern is to draw a user’s attention from one part of the content to another.

Forced Continuity

Lots of companies ask people to provide their payment details to activate free trial subscriptions. After the trial has ended, the subscription automatically switches to a paid version without any reminder being sent to the customer. What’s more, the companies usually make the cancellation process very confusing and time-consuming in the hope that the customer will just give up and let the subscription continue.

Friend Spam

Here, an app or product will ask a user to give their email address or social media details on the pretext of checking for friends on their behalf. However, once the user has approved the request, their email address is used to send all of their contacts a spam message advertising the company with the aim of attracting new users.

Confirm-shaming

This type of Dark Pattern aims to make the user feel bad about a particular decision. For example, on a message prompting you to sign up for a newsletter to get a 15% discount on your purchase, the “decline” button might be labelled “No thanks, I don’t want to save any money”.

A very common example

One of the most common examples I see of dark patterns in use is cookie consent banners. These banners and popups are so often misleading that they are almost impossible to use and know exactly if you have opted into or out of the cookies you wished to.

The two biggest issues related to this are misleading labels and information about the cookies and their purpose, and the design of the consent and opt-out buttons used. Perhaps the very worst offender for these is the Forced Continuity of a banner that tells a user they store cookies with only an Accept button to continue using the site, giving no choice to the user as to whether they are tracked and storing cookies or not.

Avoiding dark patterns

Now that you know some of the most common dark patterns in use, you are better prepared to spot them appearing in your own or colleagues’ design work.

When you spot these patterns, reach out to the designer or team who created them. Ask the question of why these patterns were chosen, and if they were chosen deliberately. Be open, and talk about the issues of dark patterns. It may be that those involved in the design were influenced by other factors, or that they might be unaware of the dangers of that pattern of design.

Try not to blame or shame. Instead, have conversations that can open up the thoughts of those involved. Use your powers for good to encourage a change to a better design. One that supports user choice, privacy, and accessibility.

The great thing about design is that there is always another way. Be creative, honest and open.

 


References
IONOS

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