Dark Patterns

So far in this course, we’ve learned about design patterns with a positive impact. The patterns we’ve covered so far help users orient themselves and reduce cognitive load when making decisions on your website or app.

However, it’s important to note that not all design patterns work to the user’s benefit. In 2010, a product designer and UX researcher named Harry Brignull coined the term dark patterns to describe interactions designed to trick users into doing something they don’t want to do. If a user finds themselves accidentally signed up for a mailing list, or can’t figure out how to unsubscribe from a service, a dark pattern is likely to blame.

Harry Brignull’s website,, lists two goals:

  • To spread awareness about companies that use dark patterns

  • To help users defend themselves by recognizing dark patterns

Brignull lists twelve categories of dark patterns on his website. By familiarizing themselves with these twelve types of dark patterns, designers can make more ethical choices and persuade design teams from implementing these harmful practices.

Trick Questions

During this course, we learned that users spend far more time scanning than reading. The Trick Question dark pattern takes advantage of this tendency by presenting text that appears to mean one thing at a glance but means the opposite when read carefully.

Screenshot from New Balance checkout process. Text reads We'd love to send you emails with offers and new products from New Balance Athletics, Inc. but if you do not wish to receive these updates, please tick this box.

In the above example, the wording of the first half of the sentence suggests this checkbox is used to sign up for the mailing list. However, leaving the box unchecked actually signs up the user.

Sneak Into Basket

This dark pattern happens when an e-commerce site sneaks an additional product or service into your shopping cart.

RyanAir travel insurance screenshot

In the above example, RyanAir automatically adds travel insurance to the user’s selected flight, and users are forced to find the Don’t Insure Me option from the Country of Residence dropdown to decline coverage.

This Dark Pattern is now illegal in the UK and European Union thanks to the Consumer Protection Policy.

Roach Motel

This dark pattern describes an online situation (such as subscribing to a mailing list) that’s easy to get into, but hard to escape from.

Spotify screenshot: Close Account versus Keep Account

While Spotify includes options to sign up with Google, Facebook, or Apple to make registration as seamless as possible, unsubscribing is a six-step process involving completing multiple forms.

Privacy Zuckering

Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, this dark pattern involves tricking people into publicly sharing more personal information than intended.

WhatsApp privacy policy screenshot

This typically happens thanks to complex and obscure privacy policies, such as the WhatsApp privacy policy shown above. Without scrolling down and reading carefully, users are unaware their WhatsApp account data is being shared with Facebook for advertising purposes.

Price Comparison Prevention and Hidden Costs

These two similar-sounding dark patterns both make it difficult for users to make an informed decision about the cost of an item.

In the Price Comparison Prevention pattern, retailers make it difficult to directly compare the cost of two different items.

In the Hidden Costs pattern, unexpected charges reveal themselves at various points in the shopping process.

Airbnb screenshot comparing two different houses. Although both houses cost a bit less than $100 per night, the total cost is $555 in the top listing, and $480 in the lower listing.

When users filter Airbnb search results by price, for example, additional fees are not factored into the search results, meaning two seemingly similar results could vary greatly in total cost.


The Misdirection pattern occurs when websites purposely focus your attention on one place to distract your attention from another. A common example is when websites make an expensive product or service look more visually appealing than a free or reduced-cost option.

Screenshot of an image licensing selection screen. The more expensive Premium License stands out visually versus the free Standard License

Bait and Switch

Users set out to accomplish one thing, but something opposite and undesirable happens instead.

Screenshot of Microsoft modal recommending an upgrade to Windows 10

The best-known example is Microsoft’s attempt to convince users to upgrade their operating system to Windows 10. Clicking the X icon in the upper right corner, an action that typically means “Close” or “Exit”, initialized the upgrade process.


Confirmshaming uses guilt to convince users to opt into something.

Screenshot of a Sign Up and Save modal. The decline option reads Nah, I Like Paying Full Price.

In the above modal, not only is the decline option hard to find, the link uses negative wording to shame the user for refusing to sign up.

Disguised Ads

Disguised ads are advertisements designed to look like web content or navigation.

Screenshot from Yahoo! in which an advertisement is designed to mimic an article in a news feed

In the above example from Yahoo!, advertisements have been designed to perfectly mimic news articles.

Forced Continuity

Forced continuity is when a user supplies payment information for a free trial or service and the supplier hides the ‘subscription renews automatically’ info or makes it difficult to cancel the automatic renewal.

Amazon banner offering users a free Audible book, followed by a $14.95 per month subscription in small text

Friend Spam

A product asks for permission to access your address book, then sends spam messages to your contacts.

LinkedIn signup screenshot. Small text reads We'll import your address book to suggest connections and help you manage your contacts.

In 2015, LinkedIn was fined $13 million dollars as part of a class-action lawsuit by users who signed up for LinkedIn’s “Add Connections” feature. After users signed up, LinkedIn sent “Join LinkedIn” emails to every contact in their network who wasn’t already a LinkedIn member.

Further reading