7 shades darker

Sinister UX patterns to lookout for

6 min readSep 15, 2018


Have you ever subscribed for a free trial of a particular service (Of course!), seduced by the prospect of cancelling the subscription anytime (yeah right!) but only after providing your credit card details (Big deal!)? Have you also found it annoyingly difficult to cancel the same?

Welcome to the world of Dark UX!

Dark UX patterns are unethically designed in the user interface of a website/application to deceit customers. They are a bunch of underhand techniques to trick users by taking advantage of human haste, negligence or desire, increasing frustration, the sense of deficiency or just the fear of missing out. These patterns are not to be confused with design mistakes that are a product of a careless and sloppy designer but are thoughtfully crafted methods keeping in mind principles of cognitive science.

The term ‘dark patterns’ was coined by British Consultants Harry Brignull and Mark Miguel, who started the website www.darkpatterns.org in an attempt to name and shame companies who indulge in these malicious practices.

Types of dark patterns

The Hateful Bait (Bait and Switch)

You set out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead. One of the most infamous examples of digital bait and switch was Microsoft’s misguided tactic to getting people to upgrade their computers to Windows 10.

When Microsoft rolled out Windows 10 in 2016, it made sure the users of earlier versions were bombarded with pop-ups similar to the one above. Microsoft was seen to be getting more and more aggressive each year with such pop-ups. They started out as a genuine, optional call to action, but gradually became dishonest. They changed the meaning of the “X” button at the top right to mean the opposite of what it typically means. In all other versions of Windows, this button means “close”. But in this specific instance, they changed it to mean “Yes, I do want to upgrade my computer to Windows 10”. When users clicked on this red button in the top right, instead of closing the upgrade dialogue, it actually fired up the installation.

The Good, The Ad and the Ugly (Disguised Ads)

Haven’t you been sneakily downloading movies from torrent? If so (definitely so), you might have had several failed attempts until finally you see the file getting downloaded. But if you’re unlucky (like me), you might be redirected to a certain website that is, well, not so safe for work.

Advertisements are plain irritating and disruptive while browsing. It’s an inescapable aspect of a capitalist society, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Due to the widespread adoption of this attitude, many users refuse to interact with ads and intentionally avoid anything that looks ad-like.

To find a way around this, many shady advertisers have begun disguising their ads in order to look like other non-advertising elements on the page.

Forced Continuity

The free trial subscription that we were previously talking about is an example of Forced Continuity. In the case of forced continuity, companies who use this tactic count on the fact that you’ll forget to call off your membership before the trial ends.

At a minimum, they’ll get at least a month’s worth — or longer — of charges before you get around to cancel it.

It is one of the most classic sales tactics to spoil the users’ experience during the onboarding process of asking for the credit card number and then making it almost impossible for them to leave.

Roach Motel

This pattern overlaps with forced continuity. Subscription-based products are infamous offenders of this ploy. Signing up is easy to do and typically needs little information from you. But just in case you want to cancel the subscription, good luck figuring out how to do that! Any information whatsoever regarding cancellation is tactfully buried (just like fine print), or worse, not listed at all. By the way, did you know that Roach Motel is actually a bait to trap cockroaches? Also, did you know that cockroaches are supposedly the only creatures that have survived the nuclear holocaust?

Getting back to the point, this dark pattern makes it extremely easy for you to get into a certain situation but immensely difficult to get out of it. For instance, not many companies give you the option to opt out of SMS Alerts once you’ve provided them with your digits.

· Inglourious Baskets (Sneak into Basket)

It’s like the online version of when an overly polite or bored McDonald’s employee, in an attempt to upsell, asks you if you would like a side of fries or coke. But the difference here is that the employee wouldn’t sneakily add those fries on your tray and then charge you for it.

This dark pattern occurs when you attempt to purchase one thing and end up buying additional items that had been sneakily added to your basket. If you don’t pay attention and just want to make transaction immediately, you may well end up adding things you do not want or need. ‘Sneak into Basket’ is a commonly used pattern in eCommerce.

Trick Questions

‘A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk’ — who was drunk? This particular question has made rounds on the internet, making Grammar Nazis jump on the bandwagon to showcase their wit! It’s an ambiguous question, meaning it can be interpreted in both ways. We come across similar questions on the internet that when glanced upon appear to be asking one thing, but if read carefully, ask another thing entirely.

Such trick questions are usually a part of marketing emails. After you register to access something on the web, you’re asked if you want to be placed on a mailing list.

This is a very standard procedure but results to be not so effective since it demands users to take an explicit action to subscribe. To find a way around this, some sites are designed to not draw any attention to the option, hoping that you opt in by mistake. In such cases, a tick means no. It’s kind of clever because usually, a tick is an affirmative action.

Privacy Zuckering

Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, our very own Man of Steal, this dark pattern tricks you into publicly sharing private information. When you use a service, the small print hidden in the Terms and Conditions gives the service providers permission to sell your personal data to anyone. Data brokers purchase it and pool it with everything else they find about you on the internet into a profile, which they then resell. The unclear language hidden in 30-page Terms of Service agreements lull users into a sense of contentment as they hit “agree” on every page.

These patterns are in direct conflict to concepts that are celebrated in design, such as empathy, humanism, and generality. Experiences that are transparent and unambiguous help users take the course of action they had indeed set out to take.

In the long run, these are much more sustainable — and valuable — than the short-term perks one might achieve from dark design patterns.




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