Chapter 12: Dark Patterns: The Trickery Behind These Poor UI Tactics

Posted on October 28, 2019 | Updated on October 31, 2022

Have you ever been to a carnival where they played bait and switch tactics for one of their midway games? If you have, then you can probably guess what dark patterns in web design are. Dark patterns mislead site visitors. They’re meant to get visitors to take a desired action. These actions might include clicking on a button or providing an email address. However, the promised result isn’t what they get — and dark patterns lead to a lot of frustration and mistrust. In a recent study, university researchers found that dark patterns are quite common on e-commerce websites. They looked at around 11,0000 websites and found that over 11 percent of them had one or more dark pattern. Even something as simple as not fully revealing all the charges involved in a purchase could be seen as an underhanded tactic. Even as designers, it’s sometimes difficult to spot a dark pattern. The last thing you want is for a user to walk away feeling as though you intentionally misled them. It’s best to understand why you shouldn’t use dark patterns. So spotting them is a vital part of your final check as a designer.

How to Spot Dark Patterns

Spotting dark patterns isn’t always easy — sometimes they are so subtle you don’t even realize you’ve created one. Here are some things to look for when checking your website for them:

1. Scarcity Marketing

Threats that there is a limited number of something when there really isn’t is definitely dishonest. Scarcity marketing has been around for a while. If you are truly only offering 200 deeply discounted items, then you aren’t lying. The problem is when you say you are limiting the discount and then offer it again. Imagine being a customer and landing on a page that says if you don’t buy in the next 20 minutes, you lose your 50 percent discount. You just aren’t prepared to buy, so you leave and come back another day only to see the same message. Obviously, the first message was a blatant lie to try to trick you into making a purchase. What else might that company be dishonest about?

2. Bait and Switch Tactics

Probably the most common dark pattern tactic is promising one thing in exchange for a user action and then delivering another. You’ve likely seen this used often on social media. In these instances, they promise you something, but then require a ton of personal information. You might even give them that info. However, when you reach the end of filling out all those form fields, they inform you that you only get a gift card if you sign up for a paid service. They haven’t been honest about why you’re sharing all your personal information, but now they have it in their database and will drive you insane with emails and phone calls just the same. And you have nothing to show for it.

3. Fake Items for Swipes

Another unethical tactic that’s becoming more common is placing an image on top of an ad that looks like a piece of hair, a bug or a piece of lint. The goal is to get you to swipe up, whether you want to or not, in order to remove the “debris.” These tactics might work once or twice, but in the long run users catch on — and it will impact your reputation as a retailer. Who wants to do business with someone who starts off by bamboozling them?

4. Forced Continuity

If you promise easy cancelation of a subscription, or even if you do not, don’t suddenly make it difficult with endless steps to end the relationship. It’s probably okay to ask once if the person is sure they want to cancel. But if you make them take more steps beyond this, you are forcing the relationship to keep going even after the person no longer wants it. Some companies offer several calls to action (CTAs) side by side, with one lengthening the subscription and one canceling, for example. If the user doesn’t pay close attention to the wording, it’s easy to do something other than what you planned and either keep or extend the membership rather than canceling. Once the user finally does cancel, you can be certain they’ll never return again.

5. Recurring Payments

Another tactic that has been around for a while is signing a user up for recurring payments but doing so in a sneaky way that the user doesn’t realize until they see charges come through on their credit card statement. Many sites do this by offering an extremely inexpensive first-month option, but then the price of the service goes up drastically in the second month and beyond.

Prevalence of Dark Pattern Tactics

Why are so many more companies using dark patterns now than in the past? With advances in artificial intelligence and machines analyzing user patterns, expect more and more psychological double-dealing in the future. Although there are currently some pretty common patterns you can spot easily, companies are starting to use less obvious things. Some examples include hiding information about prices until the end, so you can’t easily compare prices, and even automatically adding items to your shopping cart but making them hard to remove. Getting into the mindset of looking for cons like these will help you spot them now and in the future. It will also help you avoid hoodwinking your own customers so you can build authenticity and trust. After all, you want to keep your customers for many years to come. If you still aren’t sure if you’re using dark patterns, enlist the help of some folks with a good eye for detail. Ask them to check your site specifically for anything misleading. 

Avoid Dark Patterns

Dark patterns in modern design are something you should avoid. unless you want to leave your customers with a bad impression. Tricking people into doing business with you, or continuing on when they no longer want to, typically backfires in the long run. Think about the businesses that have pulled some type of trick on you and whether you plan to do business with them again in the future. It’s always best to be upfront and honest with your clients. You’ll develop a reputation for it, and your buyers will be much more likely to tell others what they like about your brand. 

CHAPTER 11: Top Mobile UX Design Principles to Remember  CHAPTER 13: What Does Good Customer Experience Look Like on the Web?

The UX Design Guide for All Levels: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Top Front End Technologies for UX Designers
Chapter 2: What is the Difference Between UX and UI?
Chapter 3: The Laws of UX
Chapter 4: Why Mobile UX Matters
Chapter 5: What Is the UX Process?
Chapter 6: Why User Experience Design Is Essential to Everything
Chapter 7: What Is Lean UX?
Chapter 8: The Top UX Design Principles
Chapter 9: The Best UX Tools and Techniques
Chapter 10: How to Become a UX Designer
Chapter 11: Top Mobile UX Design Principles to Remember
Chapter 12: Dark Patterns: The Trickery Behind These Poor UI Tactics
Chapter 13: What Does Good Customer Experience Look Like?
Chapter 14: The Different Types of User Interface
Chapter 15: The Top UX Design Courses
Chapter 16: Skills Needed to Become a Great UI Developer

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at

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