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The Real Reason You’ve Been Tricked Online

Dark Patterns“Be careful online.”

It’s a phrase uttered by parents, corporations, and law enforcement in relation to browsing and interacting with the web. We’re told it almost daily by internet watchdogs and security policies. But how careful are people actually being?

Over the last several years, expectations with regards to user interface (UI) and design have standardized. This has meant that many web users feel they have full control over the actions they perform online. This includes the products and services they buy and subscribe to, and the buyer’s journey they undertake. 

Yet for UX designers, the truth is far “darker”. Years of behavioral research and design have gone into creating user experiences that trick buyers into purchasing and consenting to actions they otherwise would not have. These user experiences are what are known as “Dark Patterns” and they can be incredibly damaging to a store’s reputation and bottom line. 

This article aims to provide store owners with a better understanding of what Dark Patterns are, and why they should be avoided. Keep reading to learn how to provide your customers with a user experience they return to time and time again and avoid delivering one they dread. 


What Are Dark Patterns?

Before we go any deeper, think about your own buying experiences. Have you ever started out your buyer’s journey with a specific product in mind, only to find yourself lost in a maze of alternatives you don’t want? If so, you may have experienced dark patterns: techniques used by ecommerce websites to lure customers towards buying products and making decisions they may otherwise not have. 

They do this by taking advantage of a user’s UI assumptions. Modern UI standardization has meant that most users just skim a page’s content instead of reading every word (imagine the time it would take to read each Amazon listing you look at). This allows for sites to make a page look like it’s there for one reason, when actually it’s serving an entirely different purpose.  

“Dark patterns” have been around for as long as ecommerce sites have exisited (almost) but the actual term was first coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull. Along with coining the term, he also registered; what he calls a “pattern library with the specific goal of naming and shaming deceptive user interfaces.” 

Don’t think that Dark Patterns are rare. In one recent study over 1,818 instances of Dark Patterns were found across 11k ecommerce websites. What’s worse, the data indicated that the more popular a site is, the more likely it was to employ Dark Patterns in its UX. 




Types of Dark Patterns

So what are these Dark Patterns? Harry Brignull identifies 11 dark patterns and outlines what each of them do on Each of these patterns plays on a specific set of assumptions by users. Learning what they are helps you avoid falling into these traps yourself, or recreating them for your users. 

Sneak into Basket

Where a site adds an additional item to your basket during the checkout process. This is often done through an opt-out checkbox.

Privacy Zuckering

Where a site convinces a consumer to provide more personal information than they want do. Often done by pulling social data. 

Roach Motel

Where a consumer is easily able to get into a situation (such as a subscription service) that they find it difficult to escape. 

Price Comparison Prevention

Where a site makes it hard to compare the prices for two items to prevent a consumer from making a more informed decision. 


A classic: focusing a customer’s attention on something that distracts them from another important piece of information. 

Hidden Costs

Where the last step of the checkout process presents costs that weren’t clear previously. 

Bait and Switch

When a consumer sets out to do one thing but the site leads them towards something else. 


Where opt-out options are worded to shame a consumer into staying opted in. 

Disguised Ads

Where adverts are disguised as content to encourage clicks from a customer. 

Forced Continuity

When a free trial comes to an end and the service automatically charges a customer. 

Friend Spam

When a product asks a customer to share and send a message to their friends through social media or email.



Why Are Dark Patterns Bad?

You could be forgiven for thinking that Dark Patterns aren’t that bad. After all, they’re present in many everyday online activities everyone takes part in. Recently, a Norweigan watchdog group called out Facebook for steering “us into sharing vast amounts of information about ourselves, through cunning design, privacy invasive defaults, and “take it or leave it”-choices.”

But by tricking users into making decisions they otherwise wouldn’t, Dark Patterns create a bad user experience. For store owners, this can lead to a loss of returning customers and brand loyalty, and an overall downturn in a store’s performance.

It’s not just a store’s performance and reputation that is at stake. Dark Patterns have also become more relevant following the enforcement of GDPR. Several of the Dark Patterns identified above cause issues regarding consent and to what degree it is given willingly. 

If deemed to be “Dark” enough that a user has been tricked into consent for something they had no knowledge of, it’s very possible for a site to find itself in breach of GDPR. Similar privacy laws are regulations are also finding their feet across the pond in the US

Most recently, this has been in the form of the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act. This act aims to stop large online platforms from using deceptive user interfaces that trick users into giving away information they don’t want to. Social media companies are particularly under fire. 

“For years, social media platforms have been relying on all sorts of tricks and tools to convince users to hand over their personal data without really understanding what they are consenting to. Some of the most nefarious strategies rely on ‘dark patterns’.”

Sen. Mark Warner

Examples of Dark Patterns

A look at Dark Patterns wouldn’t be complete without some examples identified by Harry and the wider world of Dark Pattern seekers. If you’re interested in seeing a full list – or getting involved – visit the Dark Pattern Twitter to see more.

Free But Not

The example below is perfect for showcasing how font size can be used to manipulate a fast clicker. While the ad offers a free magazine and giant mug, the small print says something else. And it’s not just £1 extra either. That’s on top of the standard £4.99 charge. This definitely counts as hidden costs.

Cancel or Continue?

Another common example of Dark Patterns at work and one that anyone who has tried to cancel online subscriptions has probably experienced. The use of confusing wording here acts as a bait and switch, in which the user is unsure what clicking each button does. Which button do you think you need to press to cancel your service?

Sneak Into Basket

A clear example of Sneak Into Basket by Microsoft. Once ticking the agreement box, the subscribe box is also automatically ticked. This could easily be missed by anyone who clicks through too quickly.

A clear example of Sneak Into Basket by Microsoft. Once ticking the agreement box, the subscribe box is also automatically ticked. This could easily be missed by anyone who clicks through too quickly.

Facebook At It Again

As we already stated, social media networks are often accused of Dark Pattern tactics. In a classic Bait and Switch, the example above leads users to believe they have notifications before logging in. Once they’ve logged in though, there are no notifications waiting for them.

Roach Motel At Work

Ever get into a situation you can’t get out of? That’s exactly what happened to James Urteaga, who signed up to a subscription service easily but then had to call customer support to cancel. These calls are not usually quick calls to say goodbye, they are often packed with sales tactics trying to keep you signed up.

We Want To Invade Your Privacy

A common example from Samsung Health above. Automatically selecting consent options doesn’t mean a user is giving consent. This is a typical example of Privacy Zuckering as it is causing the user to provide more information than they want to.

It’s Important to Avoid Dark Patterns 

Avoiding these patterns is an easy win for a lot of ecommerce stores. Sure, Dark Patterns may lead to an increase in sales or leads in the short term, but long term they have a much larger impact on your store and its reputation. 

For many users, the frustration caused by the experiences outlined above means they will never return or will look for alternatives the next time they need a similar product or service. They may not even know they have experienced a Dark Pattern, instead just feeling that their buyer’s journey could have been better. 

Interested in learning more about how to improve the ecommerce experience? Follow our guide to increasing sales on a Magento store, or pick up some simple optimizations for increasing page speed.  

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