What are dark patterns? A dark pattern is defined as “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying overpriced insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills”. They are very intentionally crafted according to behavioural psychology research and are extremely unethical to use.

Types of Dark Patterns

Dark patterns fall into the following categories:

  1. Sneaking: attempting to misrepresent user actions, or delay information
  2. Urgency: Imposing a deadline on a sale or deal
  3. Misdirection: Steering users toward or away from making a choice
  4. Social proof: Influencing users by describing the experiences of other users
  5. Scarcity: Signaling that a product is near sold-out, or is soon to be purchased by another user
  6. Obstruction: Creating a simple pathway for a user to sign up/opt-in but difficult to cancel
  7. Forced action: Forcing users to make a selection without giving an option to do otherwise, for example accepting terms and conditions

Examples of Dark Patterns

You have certainly come across your fair share of dark patterns in the past, maybe without even realizing it. A few common examples include:

  • Ads disguised as “download” or “play now” buttons
  • Automatic renewing subscriptions
  • Hidden “unsubscribe” or “cancel membership” buttons
  • Using clever wording in order to shame the user and prevent them from cancelling or exiting
  • Hidden confirmation agreements that allow the company to send you ads and marketing material
  • Confusing wording so users don’t know what exactly they are agreeing to

Check out a recent example in the new rollout of iOS 14. The wording is confusing and it is unclear whether apps are able to track you without permission:

View image on Twitter

via Twitter.com

Another example, from a user story mapping tool called Stories On Board:

View image on Twitter

Signing up is very simple, but once a user tries to cancel they have to contact a representative rather than with the click of a button.

“If you have a great product, you shouldn’t be afraid of people leaving it.”

via Twitter.com


Dark patterns are more prevalent than you may think. A recent study by Princeton University analyzed over 53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites in order to characterize and quantify the prvalence of dark patterns. They reported the following findings:

  • 1,818 instances of dark patterns
  • 15 types of dark patterns
  • 11.1% of shopping websites featured dark patterns
  • The more popular a website, the more likely they feature dark patterns
  • 234 instances of deceptive dark patterns across 183 websites


It’s clear that dark patterns are not a part of ethical design, however what about legal repercussions? Recently, senators introduced a bill to ban the use of dark patterns on big tech platforms. The Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act will apply to internet tech companies with over 100 million users. The bill will also ban the use of dark patterns aimed at children under the age of 13 years old.

In fact, a legal pursuit by the FTC is already underway. ABCMouse is an online educational game developed by Age of Learning, aimed at children and families. The company was accused of deceiving and confusing customers which led to accidental subscriptions and billing, as well as a complex cancellation process. The developer now must pay $10 million to the FTC.


As a designer, in order to gain the trust of your users and provide the most positive and effective user experience possible, you must keep transparency and control at the center of your values. Establishing a reliable and trustworthy reputation with your users is far more beneficial in the long term than trying to trick or influence users into behaving a certain manner. Keep in mind the essential components of ethical design:

As a consumer, be on the lookout for companies that are trying to influence you and control your decisions online, ask yourself “is this phrasing clear and concise?” “am I aware of the terms and conditions I am agreeing to?” “is this an ad?” “are they forcing me to make a choice in order to proceed?”