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7 min read

Dark patterns: Crossing the line in design ethics

Dark patterns are UX design tricks meant to deceive users. Here’s how to avoid them and design with users’ best interest at heart.

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There is a lot of power in design. Design can influence our thinking, our feelings, and the decisions we make, whether we’re conscious of it or not. As with any power, there is always the potential of misuse or abuse. This is where ethics comes into play because, with great power, comes great responsibility. UX designers, in particular, have a huge responsibility to use this power for good.

The whole notion of “user experience” (UX) design is based on a deep understanding of users, their needs, values, abilities, and limitations. We’re borderline psychologists without the license.

Where do we draw the line when it comes to influencing people with design? What issues are at play in design ethics? How can each of us as designers do our part?

How UX design can be ethical

We use the knowledge we gain about humans to design interfaces that “just work” for people. This includes tactics like the art of persuasion, encouraging people toward a certain decision. This is all very well until we’re persuading them toward a harmful decision or something that they otherwise would not have done on their own.

Here lies the (not-so-fine) line. Ethical UX design should never exploit human psychology in order to encourage people to perform actions that are against their best interests.

Ethical UX design should never exploit human psychology in order to encourage people to perform actions that are against their best interests.

What are dark patterns?

The truth is that ethics aren’t always so cut-and-dry for designers. No good designer maliciously intends to harm their users, yet we are surrounded by carefully crafted interfaces that trick people into making certain decisions and performing various actions. We’ve come to know (and hate) these deceptions as dark patterns.

There are various types of dark patterns. The challenge is many dark patterns have become commonplace and grown gradually acceptable in design circles, making it difficult to judge what is “helpful” persuasion and what’s simply a misleading design. Let’s examine these dark patterns more closely, the reasons they appear, and how we as designers can do our part to put the “user” back into “user experience.”

Types of dark patterns

Purdue University conducted extensive research and summarized these unethical patterns into five design strategies:

  1. Sneaking

  2. Obstruction

  3. Nagging

  4. Interface interference

  5. Forced action

1. Sneaking

Sneaking is any method of hiding, disguising, or delaying people from accessing information relevant to them. Sneaking includes practices like “bait and switch,” “hidden costs,” “cart sneaking,” and “user data transparency.” These can take on different forms, such as automatically adding items to shopping carts, not notifying users of added costs, and secretly collecting private data.

A ceramic goblet priced as $5.99, while the total price is $28.89
Not notifying users of added costs in price is a form of sneaking.

Why it happens:

One of the primary purposes of a business is to maximize profits for its owners or stakeholders. While this is understandable, the ends don’t always justify the means. In their attempts to increase revenues, businesses may opt for any tactic that would lead users to spend more money, forgoing values like brand trust and transparency.

Sometimes, the intent is well-meaning. For instance, with “hidden costs,” the intent of designers may not be to purposefully trick people, but simply not to push them away with shockingly expensive prices. They may assume people will expect the price to increase with taxes, service charges, etc.

In effect, sneaking dark patterns have become a design norm, meant to attract more people. Another well-meaning practice is the handling of user data. When using software, applications, and websites, we often have to agree to some sort of tracking or usage info. Companies can use this information to improve their products, making them better for people. The issue is not being transparent with people about the data collected, or even tracking without approval.

What to do instead:

Even if well-intended, sneaking is unethical and only frustrates people. Instead of converting people into customers, this practice ultimately drives them away. Hidden costs are especially frustrating since it’s lying to your potential customers. While we may want to avoid “shock value,” people will appreciate it much more if we’re upfront and straightforward.

2. Obstruction

Obstruction is the deliberate process of making everything more difficult than it has to be. It’s often used to dissuade people from making decisions that could negatively affect the business. Obstruction includes practices like preventing customers from comparing prices and making it difficult or even impossible to cancel services.

A sign up pop-up with a nearly hidden option to decline the offer
Making it difficult or nearly impossible to decline offers is a form of obstruction.

Why it happens:

A business’ goal of increasing profits often means increasing and maintaining their user-base. In an attempt to keep people from unsubscribing, closing their accounts, or leaving, businesses will make it extremely difficult to find and perform these options. Once you do find the option, what should be a simple process turns into a never-ending experience.

For example, some websites completely hide the “close account” option or require you to email or call a number in order to cancel your account. Unfortunately, these strategies work. After a period of trying, customers will simply give up, which is usually what companies want.

However, sometimes the intentions are good. As designers, we know quite well that people often make decisions out of error or haste, and often wish they could undo what they’ve done. Companies who understand this will want to prevent people from making a decision that they will later regret.

What to do instead:

Obstruction only leads to distrust and frustration. When customers finally find their way out of the “roach motel” or figure out why certain actions were prevented, they will make every effort to do business elsewhere. People will appreciate it if they can quickly perform the action they intend and if processes are not unnecessarily complicated.

3. Nagging

Nagging often presents itself as repetitive intrusions, continuously interrupting people from accomplishing their tasks. These include pop-ups, auto-playing audio or video, or anything else that distracts people from their intended action. Simply put, it’s annoying.

A pop up window saying: “Enjoying our app?” Share it with your friends and leave us a review.
Repeated pop-ups that prevent users from accomplishing their task is a form of nagging.

Why it happens:

Companies want more subscriptions to newsletters, more sign-ups, and for people to keep using their product. To accomplish this, they employ persistent pop-ups that follow you no matter how much you keep scrolling.

Most notable and recent are “confirm-shaming” pop-ups. These display when you first visit, and, sometimes, you’re presented with something of value, like a coupon, in exchange for your email subscription. If you want to decline, the decline option will be worded negatively, like “No thanks, I like paying full price,” or “Close this window because I HATE free stuff.” It may not appear to be a big deal, and some of these pop-ups may be a bit funny, but shaming people into compliance is unethical and not a good way to persuade people to do something even if it supposedly benefits them.

What do to instead:

No one likes to be nagged in any area of life. When it comes to interface design, customers don’t want to be constantly prompted to enable notifications or subscribe to a newsletter they’re not interested in. Pop-ups are almost always hated and viewed as unnecessary. If you must present a pop-up or notification, it should be relevant and in the best interests of customers.

It may be tempting to trick people to perform actions against their best interests, but the result will be the loss of a customer. People appreciate user experiences that don’t trick them into making decisions.

4. Interface interference

Interface interference has to do with manipulating what a person sees, so that they’re confused as to what action to take. This type of dark pattern makes decisions for people without ever giving them a true opportunity to decide for themselves. Interface interference includes trick questions, double-negative verbiage, and preselection.

Three check boxes: "Opt me in," "Don't opt me out," and "Don’t not opt me in"
Confusing language and double-negative verbiage are a form of interface interference.

Why it happens:

Interface interference happens for similar reasons as obstruction and nagging. To lead people to click on the content, ads will sometimes be disguised as real emails or search results. To keep people from unsubscribing, the unsubscribe button will be hidden using super-small text, camouflaged with the same text color, or worded so that you accidentally choose the wrong option. Anything to keep you from doing what is not in the best interests of the company.

What to do instead:

It may be tempting to trick people to perform actions against their best interests, but the result will be the loss of a customer. Allow customers to choose for themselves whether to subscribe or buy additional content.

People appreciate user experiences that don’t trick them into making decisions. By using clear and concise verbiage, we can ensure that people will know exactly what they’re doing when using our products.