Seven UX dark patterns that influence your decision-making

Design, Digital, Opinion, UX

You may not know of dark patterns, but the chances are they’ve influenced you at some point in your life. If you’ve ever purchased something online, you may have had to carefully navigate your way through a maze of options to prevent subscribing to a lifetime of newsletters, hiring a stretched limo with fully comp insurance, or booking a massage at your local hotel. In the real world you might have come across something similar too; forget to print your boarding card or bring an oversized bag to the airport at your financial peril… you get the gist.

Author of Dark Patterns, Harry Brignull, describes a dark pattern as:

[box] A user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do[/box]

I’d like to modify this slightly to:

[box] Seven UX dark patterns that influence your decision-making[/box]

Why? Because these techniques were around years before they were translated to digital experiences and they can be based on weaknesses of the human mind (often referred to as cognitive biases).

One thing to note is that these techniques should not be confused with poor design — they’re actually very clever. However, in the interests of improved public knowledge, I feel it’s only right that I make you aware of seven of the most frequently used dark patterns so you can make more informed, rational decisions next time you’re exposed. Here they are:


1. Trick Questions

Using overly complex wording in questions and instructions can confuse people and often results in them making a poor decision. A double negative is a classic dark pattern, for example: “un-tick this box if you do not want to join our mailing list”.

2. Broken Journeys

Some companies create confusing or complex user journeys for certain processes they do not wish people to complete. In some cases, companies simply don’t invest in making these processes smooth, whilst in other cases companies actively seek to reduce completion by complicating the process. Examples include telephone help lines with complex department choices / long wait times, or requiring sign in to unsubscribe from an email chain.

3. Hiding Information

This is when less desirable information is presented in a harder to read format. The most common example of this is with terms and conditions appearing in small print. We’re all guilty of not reading the terms & conditions, so making them easy to skim over is both naughty and useful.

4. Price Anchoring

Placing a £20 bottle of wine next to a £50 bottle on a menu makes the cheaper wine seem like a great option, but is it? Many restaurants put their most profitable wines next to their most expensive. The same can be witnessed in online shops and supermarket shelves.

5. Forced Continuity

This is a hugely popular trick with subscription services. Customers sign up for a free trial but are not informed when it is coming to an end. Payment details are taken up front and the contract automatically rolls on to a paying period if the customer forgets to cancel. Ouch! This is now illegal in the UK if the retailer uses a “bait-and-switch” technique to attract sign-up.

6. Disguised Adverts

Since the onset of pay-per-click advertising, many naughty advertisers have been focussing more on the volume of clicks rather than the effectiveness of the ad. A good way to encourage clicks is to make the advert seem like it is part of the site, or part of your operating system. Most of us will have seen the “Dear internet user, congratulations! You are the 1,000,000th Click here to claim your iPad” or “Your computer is not optimised. Click here to clean up your system” ads. Don’t touch them! Look out for slight deviations in design style compared to the site you’re on.

7. Sneak in to Basket

This is when something you did not ask for mysteriously appears in your shopping basket during an e-commerce process. This can also be the case for some installation processes, where as well as the software you asked for, you also end up with some random antivirus program. This is now illegal in the UK thanks to the EU’s new consumer rights law.