The Design of the Dark Side – the UX Dark Patterns

My clients often tell me that they want to build the Death Star of their product. Unwittingly, it always reminds me how easily rebels blew it up. Three times, to be accurate. A soundly designed user experience can really make your product a planet killer, but using the force to abuse emotions with a dark pattern easily blows up that strongly coveted ultimate weapon of yours.

Putting science fiction aside for a second, UX designers’ aim is to enhance customer satisfaction and increase loyalty with their solid understanding of human psychology to build a real win-win situation for both users and businesses. And while deception has existed since the world was born, for a long time we believed designers’ sole purpose is – or at least should be – to make something good greater.

Taking advantage of human haste, inattention or desire, boosting frustration, the sense of lack or the fear of missing out is the dark side of UX and the definition of Dark Patterns.

We’ve all met services that are a pain to unsubscribe from, products in our shopping cart we’ve never added there, money withdrawn from our account without any notice, and the list could go on. We collected the 5 most annoying Dark Patterns that drives us nuts:

#5: Forced continuity is held up as an example of greatly designed User Experience, but what they did to Amazon Prime is a slap to that reputation.

A few weeks ago I ordered a gift from Amazon and could get free delivery with only subscribing to Amazon Prime. As I never planned to use AP, I decided to cancel the subscription a few days later and the nightmare began.

First, you have to click on a button saying Do not continue, which is strongly misdirecting. Continue with what? My subscription or with the cancellation process? After clicking on it, I am redirected to another page where I can still keep my subscription and where I have to explicitly declare my unsubscription one more time. Once it is done, Amazon Prime again tries using emotional pressure in order for me to re-activate my subscription.

Forced continuity dark pattern - Amazon Prime

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

Forced continuity is a great example of the conflict between customer and business interests and it is like a real human relationship: Once it is over, you can decide how to end it: Let the user go with comfort or leave a bad feeling in them since they will leave anyway.

#4: Misdirection

Misdirection is the best example when designers create a dark pattern to abuse the conventional user behaviour. Users are trained to use highlighted call-to-action buttons to execute an action that lets them move forward: green is approve and red is decline, primary functions are bigger then others and words like cheapest and fastest mean what they should; except when designers decide otherwise.

Take a profound look at British Airways’ website and decide which price is really the lowest:

Dark Pattern of British Airways

#3: Negative option billing

Negative option billing is the sales tactic we have all met: We decide to buy a product or purchase a service and we automatically get something else to pay for, – or if we notice in time – specifically decline. If it makes you furious, you are absolutely right: companies charge you without your consent and assume you either don’t notice or don’t care about it.

This dark pattern is nothing new: You can find examples from the 80s when cable providers gave you subscriptions to additional channels without you ever asking for it. While in many countries negative option billing is forbidden by law, it’s living its golden age in the digital world.

#2: Bait and switch

One of the oldest tricks is when the user gets something different or opposite of what they wanted to achieve with their action. Bait and switch is not discernible only in design, it is widely used in retail, commerce and politics as well.

We all had experience with flashing buttons what you only have to click on to get something promising. Except that you have to fill out a form with your e-mail and phone number and often credit card details.

Luckily most users don’t fall for it and they leave the website immediately, but what if the bait is that little X up in the corner?

I remember how many people had issues with their forced Windows 10 update. When users clicked on the comfortable red button in the top right, instead of closing the upgrade dialogue, it actually launched the installation.

It is not just a manipulation of the users but a total misguidance, that makes Bait and Switch a silver medalist on our list.

#1: Hidden costs

Last Friday I wanted to order an Adidas product from Amazon that had been sold out in stores. I was more than pleased because the product cost only 50 dollars – what is just half the price you can usually find it in stores; and also because Amazon offered free shipping. Getting to the last page of the check-out did I only realize that Amazon could only ship it for a 100 dollars to where I live. Getting the product I wanted would have cost twice as much as the product itself.

As I travel frequently, another great example that comes up is Airbnb. As most people, I also decide on the total cost I have to cover when I book an apartment. By the time you find the perfect flat, you have reviewed plenty of options – because Airbnb shows prices /night – and the sad truth of hidden costs of cleaning and other services shock you at the end.

Hidden costs occur as the last step of a check-out process, hoping the pain it causes is lower than the disappointment you feel if you back out of the purchase.

Our Top #1 in our eyes is not only a dark pattern but a scam of every business using it.

What’s your ‘favorite’ dark pattern?

Have you found a dark pattern that makes you crazy? Share it below in a comment.

  • Tamás Bíró

    Although I’m totally on your (light) side with the Amazon example, I’m not sure if we are right. I would be happy to see statistics on how much revenue Amazon makes on forcing people to stay with their AP subscription. People are weak, and can be pressured into staying. And if it also makes money, than why not? It’s not fair or nice, but money talks. What do you think?

    • These methods are good to boost your numbers on the short term. But if you use too many of them people will start hating you and turn away to other competitors, who are not that greedy. So it’s a short term vs long term question.

      • I’m not sure if this reasoning holds up. Amazon is all about long term.

  • Kristóf Dér

    My favorite Dark Pattern is from IKEA. If you subscribe, you will get one e-mail / week. If you click unsubscribe, you will be notified that you have been unregistered from a list, named something like this: HU_W34_NWSLetter. After this, your inbox will receive newsletter again. And again. Click unsubscribe everytime, and you will be unregistered from HU_W35_NWSLetter and HU_W36_NWSLetter, whatever the week number is. So subscribe means: You subscribe to the 42 mailing list we have for this year. Every list sends you 1 mail, so it’s not problem that you cancel your newsletter subscription because there will be no more letters on that week.

    • This thing is quite common nowadays. For example the Mobile Word Congress in Barcelone signed me up for tens of different lists.

  • Steve Noone

    I gave almost this exact presentation a couple months ago.

  • Simo Magazzù

    Great article! I’m featuring it in my invite-only newsletter for UX Designers! Thank you so much for this awesome piece of content!

    If you want to receive the email tomorrow, here’s an invite for you:

    Keep rocking