Dark patterns: what are they and which types exist?
Dark patterns. They’re dirty and they’re hidden in almost every money-making digital product you interact with. They are in the order kiosk of that nearby McDonald’s, in your weekly newsletters, your social media accounts and the websites you use to book flight tickets and hotel rooms. Though you come across dark patterns multiple times a day, you rarely notice them.
So what are dark patterns? Essentially, they’re manipulative UX/UI designs in an app or on a webpage that trick you into doing something you did not intend. Dark patterns trigger you to click, book, subscribe, buy or to just keep on scrolling like an addict.
While it’s clear that these tricks are beneficial to the companies to make more money, it’s also clear that they’re often harmful to the end users. Dark patterns can make people addicted to an app, or lure them into spending cash they should have kept in their wallets.
Now let’s have a look at the 12 different types of dark patterns you may have fallen victim to in the past. These types have been identified by Harry Brighnull, who also coined Dark Patterns as a term back in 2010.
Trick questionYou fill out a form and there’s a question that tricks you into giving an answer you did not mean to give. The question seems to ask for one thing, but when read carefully it actually asks for something else.
Trick questions are often in the checkboxes at the end of a form when you’re signing up for a new service. You’re already tired of entering your details and are not paying too much attention to these two last questions anymore. The first question is one that you want to check to avoid a cluttered inbox. But the second box should remain unchecked if you don’t want all the spam. If you don’t read both questions well, you end up getting annoying marketing mails from random companies.
MisdirectionA very common one. Misdirection draws your attention to something so that you wouldn’t notice the other thing that the company doesn’t want you to see.
You’re booking a room for tomorrow night in Berlin and in the order flow you get to see this page. How kind of the hotel to let you pick the floor level you’d like to be on! But the option to choose your floor isn’t for free. You get charged an extra €10 if you pick a floor. So while the entire screen feels like choosing a floor is just part of the default process, you should click the small text in the bottom right corner to dodge the extra fee. Many people will not read everything properly and just end up paying more.
ConfirmshamingThis dark pattern makes a person feel bad for opting out. You often see examples of confirmshaming when you’re about to decline a special offer, delete something from your shopping cart, or when a site or app tries to convince you to subscribe for the newsletter.
You’re on this website that offers you a free e-book on growing your own food. Sure thing you are somewhat interested because how else did you get on this website? When you get this pop-up you can either give your email to claim that free document, or you can close the pop-up. But there’s no little X to click. Instead you see a clickable phrase that is designed to make you feel bad for clicking it. You probably don’t know much about growing veggies. So clicking ‘No thanks, I already know everything about growing vegetables’ feels wrong.
Sneak into basketYou’re in the process of buying something online and at some point an extra item is added to your basket without your conscious consent. This often happens if you did not check or uncheck a box. To make it even worse that extra item in your basket sometimes only becomes clearly visible a few pages later. Luckily this dark patterns has become illegal is some EU countries.
Say you’re booking a hotel room and you’re in a hurry. You don’t take the time to read this sneaky part carefully and leave that box unchecked. That means that in a few moments, you’ll see an extra €15 on your checkout bill for the ‘free’ cancellation fee you do not really need.
Roach motelThis one is extremely dirty. It’s when you can very easily get into a situation -often it’s being subscribed- but it’s made very hard for you to leave that situation. Maybe you just wanted to buy some headphones but the webshop sneaked a subscription to a DJ magazine into your basket. You should have carefully read the small letters and uncheck a box to decline the magazine subscription. But you didn’t. A few weeks later you get this unfamiliar magazine delivered to your doorstep. Maybe it’s a free trial? One month later you get another one. You check your bank account and notice that you’ve made 2 payments of €12 to some unknown recipient. Time to find out how to unsubscribe and possibly reclaim that money!
After a long search on that webshop and making some calls, you find out that the only way to unsubscribe is to send a paper letter to Brussels. That means owning a printer or going to a print shop, writing down stuff in ink, going to a post office to put that paper in an envelope with a stamp on it and have it sent to Brussels. And wait until that letter gets on the right desk and someone takes the time to help you out. And then check your bank account as this is probably the only way to verify that the subscription has ended.
Privacy ZuckeringYup, this one is named after that guy from Facebook. Privacy Zuckering happens when you share more information about yourself than you wanted to share. Your shopping behavior, your sexual kinks, your mental health and the places you like to go to are known. This data is all captured and traded without much regulations between companies behind the scenes. The data brokerage industry may have dramatic effects on your future quality of life. It could affect your chances of getting a loan or a job for instance if your bank or interviewer has bought some of that information about you.
If you want to use a store card to claim special discounts, chances are you need to agree with some terms first. The store is then allowed to gather data on your shopping behavior and sell it to other parties. Say you’ve started to buy less meat. That’s valuable data about you for companies that produce meat alternatives. They want your details so they can target their ads to you.
Price comparison preventionThis one prevents you from making an informed purchase because you cannot compare the price of an item with relevant other items. Instead, you get to see items that are unrelated or that are somewhat related but hard to compare.
Say you want to buy apples. What’s the better deal here? Should you buy loose or packaged apples? It’s hard to know because you cannot really compare a fixed price of the packaged apples with the price per kg of loose apples. And what’s that pear doing there? Wouldn’t it be better to show another type of apple instead?
Hidden costsWhen you only get to see the extra costs you have to pay once you’re at the checkout, you’re the victim of hidden costs. You’ve committed to purchasing an item by adding it to your basket and you went through the entire process of getting it delivered. You created an account and entered your address, payment details and what not. Okay. All that work has been done and you’re one click away from ordering. That’s when the hidden costs are mentioned. Fuck. There’s no way back now.
Tomorrow it’s Mother’s Day! You want to surprise her with a luxurious breakfast, delivered to her house. You feel the breakfast box you select is fairly priced at €39,9. But if you knew from the start that you had to pay that extra €10,5 you maybe would have opted for the flower shop around the corner.
Bait and switchSo you’re clicking or tapping to deal with something, but your actions result into the opposite outcome of the one you wanted. You were lured into performing the wrong action.
You’re paying a little monthly fee to access your docs in the cloud. Now you get a message like this one. It clearly says that you’ve almost used all your available storage space. Wanna upgrade? Naah. You don’t feel like paying that extra €24 a year and you’ll just take some files to another storage location once this cloud service says is cannot take in any more of your documents.
So what do you do? You click the top right corner to get rid of this stupid pop-up. That’s the wrong move because you’ve just confirmed that you’re fine with the upgrade. Check out the small text. It says that your plan will automatically upgrade once you’re out of storage space. If you don’t want to upgrade you need to click the little link above the big yellow button.
Disguised adsPretty self-explanatory name. These are ads that don’t look like ads. The purpose of this of course is to make people click more ads because this generates money.
This news site shows you several articles but one of them is not actually a news fact. The third article about Shopify is an ad that just looks like it’s news. That’s great for the news site because many people are triggered to click the ad, thinking they’ll get some valuable content on the next page. And for Shopify it’s also a way to get more people subscribed. Mind that I only made up these news facts.
Forced continuityHey, why not try this great stock analysis tool for free for a month? Sure! But after a few hours you feel like the tool cannot really offer you the value you’re looking for and you return to your old ways of working. After that month has passed you are silently becoming a paying customer for the tool and each month a fixed amount gets taken from your credit card. Only after you’ve noticed the weird bank statements you find out what’s been happening. Now you’re facing the challenge of stopping these automatic renewals. That’s rarely an easy thing to do.
When you’re about to register for the free trial of this stock analysis tool, you’re asked about your card details already. That’s a bit strange if you don’t need to pay for anything yet. But as this is a standard procedure and you’ve done this tons of times before, you may as well continue. Everything is shouting that it’s free and incautious visitors won’t be triggered to click the little button to check out the billing info page.
Friend spamSometimes you get a message from someone you know a little and the message just feels a bit weird. You get an email or a chat message from this person who’s recommending a product out of nowhere.
In this case, the person who’s already playing the game (let’s call him Luke) may have connected his social media account with the game because he was promised a better social experience. Doing so, Luke grants the game access to all the contacts he has sitting in his social account. The game then sends messages to these contacts as if it were Luke sending the messages. This way, the game hopes to convert people like Sarah into customers. It always works better if a friend recommends a product instead of the producer advertising the product. Nowadays many people recognize it’s just spam. Sarah may not be a gamer and she may have not been talking to Luke for years. But spam messages are getting smarter and harder to recognize. If spam starts to talk like your best friends about relevant topics, you’ll need to be extra wary.
So there’s that. A list of common dark patterns, originally listed by Harry Brighnull. Hope this ups your prudence as a daily online roamer. But I also hope this makes designers mind their responsibilities. Want to learn more on dark patterns? Here's another helpful article.
A small change in your UX/UI design that you made without any bad intentions can still affect people’s lives is ways you’d not have thought about. Take care!