Dark patterns or deceptive interface designs that trick you

Anton P. | May 20, 2021

Dark patterns are deceptive user interfaces prompting consumers to perform particular actions. Unfortunately, they seem to be a recurring problem in the digital world that millions of people encounter. However, the misleading UX/UI interactions have managed to stay afloat for years. Essentially, dark patterns coerce you into making a decision in line with what companies want. For instance, web owners might dangle an easy escape route to trick you into agreeing with some shady terms.

What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns are sneaky web design elements that mislead users into doing something they do not necessarily want. They are everywhere and might take many forms. For example, remember that huge ad, taking a lot of space on a site and without an exit button? Or that pop-up message that appeared with preselected settings? All these subtle yet common elements are intentional, as companies attempt to influence users’ actions.

User interfaces typically have one goal: to create a fluid and responsive experience. However, dark patterns drive users to perform actions that might not be in their best interest. For instance, you might unwittingly agree to have your data collected and sold to third parties.

Why? For one, companies might sugarcoat it as much as possible, making the decision seem insignificant. Additionally, the messages requiring consent might take 80% of the screen. If you are in a rush, you won’t bother reading the long notice and terms. Thus, you simply click “agree” without fully understanding the impact of your decision.

Harry Brignull, a UX specialist from London, coined the term “dark patterns” in 2010. He used it to refer to the subtle tricks companies exploit to discourage behavior unfavorable to them. Brignull’s website offers many insights into the deceptive trend, and some dishonorable examples.

While most dark patterns might be a deliberate attempt to add roadblocks, it is not always the case. UX designers might simply follow the current trends or add elements that work. However, the unintentional addition of dark patterns is still a rather unpleasant speed bump for users. Even if the obstruction is minor, users should know how not to fall for them.

Examples of dark patterns

Here are some more examples of dark patterns in the digital world. The chances are, you have encountered some of them.

  • The “X” button on the ad is so small you end up clicking on the ad.
  • A big pop-up urges you to sign up for a company newsletter. The “Sign Me Up” is much more present within the message, while the opt-out button is hard to notice.
  • The opt-out option hints that users do not care about a specific sensitive topic. In some cases, it might try to make users feel guilty about leaving or unsubscribing.
  • The unsubscribe button in marketing letters can be challenging to find.
  • Canceling a subscription might take many steps and clicks, even though the signup process was much easier.
  • Websites show pop-up cookie notices that coerce users into agreeing with the presented terms. The explanations might be overly lengthy, which discourages users from reading them. Rejecting cookies might also take multiple clicks, and require unchecking boxes marked automatically.

The controversy around dark patterns

While the term itself celebrates its 11 birthday, dark patterns are not necessarily a central topic in the digital world. For the most part, these designs have persisted and worked for years. However, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light” online workshop seems to have stirred up some more media coverage.

The FTC’s position became relatively clear after that. Dark patterns are deceptive, and their expiration date might be upon us. While it is unclear what regulations might follow, the workshop opened a new venue for discussion. And, if more users get to learn about dark patterns, their effectiveness will drop naturally.

Some regulations attempt to control the use of dark patterns. For instance, the Consumer Privacy Act already protects users in California from dark patterns overcomplicating some of the basic procedures. Companies cannot coerce users into clicking through multiple screens, use misleading language, or urge clients not to leave. The act also bans the use of dark patterns for getting users to consent to the collection of personal data.

Federal lawmakers participate in the fight against dark patterns as well. One such attempt is the DETOUR (Deceptive Experience To Online Users Reduction) Act. The bill focuses on companies that have over 100 million monthly active users. Such services cannot use dark patterns for coercing users into agreeing to give away their data. However, while there are plans to reintroduce DETOUR, it is yet to make a difference.

What can you do about dark patterns?

Dark patterns are not trivial in terms of profit companies can make. According to FastCompany, such UX design manipulation can drive consumers to spend 21% more. Therefore, it is no wonder that web or app owners add such nuanced elements. However, in some cases, the roadblocks businesses set might immediately strike as excessive.

Consider Amazon and how difficult it is to close your account. Clients will need to perform multiple steps, with many confirmations required along the way. Right off the bat, it seems that the company tries to prevent an action that would be bad for business. However, it claims that such a lengthy removal process is necessary to mitigate accidental deletes.

Businesses might try to keep you subscribed to their newsletter with an image of a sad kitten. Although mildly infuriating, it is not the biggest issue here. Dark patterns are the most harmful when used for getting users to agree to have their data collected/shared. Thus, you need to be extremely careful after hastily skimming through the lengthy terms presented to you. According to our research, one in ten companies sells customer data to third parties. Dark patterns could be the ones assisting businesses in getting your consent.

So, besides relying on policymakers to do all the work, you can play your part as well. Awareness is a powerful first step. If you recognize dark patterns, you won’t be as susceptible to them. You have no obligation to go with the flow. And if a service or a company tries to lead you on, do not stay silent.

Publicly exposing online manipulation can compel businesses to be less aggressive with their tactics. If not, your warning might help fellow users recognize it as a trick in the future.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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