Deceptive design – The murky world of dark UX patterns

Dark UX patterns are becoming a topic of increasing concern, as companies are accused of using unethical methods to nudge users into taking actions that are not in their best interests.

In this article we’ll explore some of the common dark patterns out there, and dig in to the cognitive biases that make them so effective.

Before we go to the dark side though, let’s get straight what we mean by ‘patterns’ for starters.

UX design patterns are widely-used, repeatable solutions to common problems such as inputting a date, structuring a bunch of content or separating an application into sections.

They’re a way we solve the challenge of creating logical and easy-to-use applications and visually appealing UI design without reinventing the wheel every time.

Humans are naturally pattern-seeking, and we all arrive at a product with some assumptions about how we’ll find our way through it based on our past experiences.

Our brains have a tendency to use those past experiences, along with our preferences, as filters to systematically simplify information we’re presented with.

These cognitive biases are a sort of coping mechanism that allow us to process the masses of information the world throws at us without losing the plot.

When designers use patterns, they avoid cognitive strain for users.

Knowing how users think and behave is a massive part of a UX designer’s remit, and one that can be used positively.

Nudges and sludges

UX designers can use patterns to point users in the right direction through a product, or towards taking an action that is likely to be beneficial to them.

A couple of examples of positive nudges might be making a stronger password that keeps their credentials secure, or remembering a meeting thanks to a five-minute warning pop up.

These behavioural ‘nudges’ are all around us in our everyday lives too when we think about it.

Our oven timer reminds us that we’ll need to take the cake out if we want it to be maximally tasty and the white lines in the middle of the road encourage us not to drift across lanes when driving.

Appropriately used nudges help people in the digital and offline world – they make the right choice an easy one, lowering the cognitive load in an ethical way.

However, there’s a flipside to the good and helpful nudge – commonly referred to as ‘sludge.’ Sludge puts friction and obstruction between the user and their desired outcome.

This can be unintentional, through poor understanding of users’ actual goals, rushed product release or lack of knowledge of best practices.

Often though, sludge is intentional. Companies are guilty of deliberately steering people in wrong directions.

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When UX patterns go dark

We can use patterns in good faith, to support users’ needs, wants and goals or we can use them in an internationally sludgey way to achieve the goals of the business – even if these are at odds with those of users.

When designers use their knowledge of human behaviour and psychological principles to make (or try to make!) users take actions that aren’t in their best interests, they enter ‘dark pattern’ territory – a term first used by eagle eyed UXer Harry Brignull back in 2010 when he started to call them out.

Dark UX patterns are a form of intentional sludge.

I’d imagine everyone reading this can think of a time they’ve noticed a product or service exploiting behavioural biases- particularly in e-commerce where they’re especially rife.

Recently, dark patterns have been increasingly attracting scrutiny from regulators in the UK, US and EU.

It’s a hot topic that’s only going to get hotter, particularly for financial services, where the FCA’s new consumer duty sets higher and clearer standards on how firms should be putting their users first.

So let’s break dark UX patterns down into some categories, pulling out what they look like in practice, and identifying the biases they tap into.

It’s worth saying that these aren’t universal definitions across the design community – some sources will group them together slightly differently, and the borders are sort of fluid.

This also isn’t a totally exhaustive view – new darkness is being uncovered all the time!

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Dark pattern #1 Sneaking

Dark patterns in the ‘sneaking’ bracket are incredibly common – they were among the original crimes that Harry Brignull shared.

Largely, sneaking imposes additional goods or services on users with the hope that they won’t notice.

This could be by…

  • slipping extra items into their basket – and claiming they’re ‘helpful suggestions’ based on the user’s intended purchase.
  • Revealing an extra cost at the last possible moment – how many times have you gone through the whole buying journey only to see VAT applied at the very end?
  • Defaulting to a ‘forced continuity’ subscription model rather than one off purchase – a method beloved of SO many SaaS products.

The ‘default effect’ cognitive bias, where people tend to stick with previously made decisions, and favour inaction over action, means sneaky platforms get away with this one surprisingly often.

Dark pattern #2 Pressuring

  • This deal is being held for you – but only for as long as the countdown is ticking!
  • This widget will sell out, there’s only one available!
  • If you don’t subscribe to this newsletter, you’ll be missing out, why would you do that to yourself?
  • Dozens of other people have taken this action, so why aren’t you?

Design patterns that rush users, shame them, nag them or otherwise apply pressure to perform a certain action – be it buying an item, granting a permission or sharing details, all fall into this category.

They appeal to our ‘scarcity bias’ – the fear humans often have that they’re missing out – where if we think we might not get access to something we find ourselves wanting it more.

There’s also often an element of the ‘bandwagon effect’ bias at play in pressuring patterns.

We find ourselves wanting what others appear to have as a way to avoid having to work out what we actually want. Remember, these biases are a way our brains let us take shortcuts!

Dark pattern #3 Obstructing

Making interactions difficult sounds like the opposite of what we aim to do as UX designers, but putting barriers in the way of tasks the user wants to accomplish but that are at odds with the business’s goals is a common dark pattern.

Just think about all the times you’ve come across a product where it’s confusing to unsubscribe, close an account or remove permissions.

Platforms where sign up is an incredibly easy, self-service flow but when it comes to cancelling your account require a phone call with a representative who’ll try to entice you to stay subscribed are also a classic in this area.

Brignull named these patterns ‘Roach Motels’, after a type of bug trap that lures creepy crawlies to walk in then glues them in place. Pleasant, right!

Products can be less blatant but still obstructive when they introduce ‘click fatigue’ for flows that are less desirable to the organisation but more in line with what users would want for themselves.

For example, rejecting cookies can take a ton of fiddling with settings and turning specific ones on or off – much easier just to click ‘accept all’ once.

That’s the ‘inaction over action’ part of the default effect again.

Dark pattern #4 Forcing

The next level up from patterns that pressure users to take a specific action are dark patterns that require them to take it in exchange for functionality.

The use of paywalls that cut the reader off after a few lines is a type of forcing. Users want to view a particular article, their goal isn’t to subscribe to a particular publication. But when the pop up appears after those tantalising lines of text, they’re sufficiently invested to enter their details – and possibly make an unplanned payment – in order to read on. This is sometimes known as ‘forced enrolment.’

Similarly a user ‘earning’ access to the aspects of a product they’re interested in by leaving a review, taking a survey or creating an account which gives away more personal details than they’d initially intended all count.

When we carry on with an action because we’ve become invested, a cognitive bias known as a ‘sunk cost fallacy’ kicks in. We’ve got part of the way, so we may as well see it through, despite not rationally wanting to take the action the platform is forcing upon us.

Dark pattern #5 Deceiving

Deceptive designers can deploy visual and text elements in dark ways that confuse and disorientate users. Often too their deception is rooted in abusing ‘good’ design patterns to send users down paths they wouldn’t have chosen by triggering the ‘framing effect’ bias.

Our brains make decisions based on how options are presented, and the positive or negative connotations that seem to be associated with them, even if those connotations are in fact totally misleading.


Would your eye be drawn to ‘no thanks’ in small, grey text, or a neighbouring huge ‘yes please’, complete with bright yellow surround?

When two choices which deserve equal footing instead give visual precedence to the one that benefits the product not the user, there’s deception going on. You might hear this called a ‘false hierarchy’ or simply ‘misdirection.’

In words

Text can be used in an equally underhand way, with double negatives like ‘don’t uncheck this box if you want to keep receiving emails from us’, ambiguous wording that leaves users unsure of themselves and opt outs hidden in dense walls of text.

Subverting patterns

We all know what clicking an ‘X’ does, don’t we…?

When designers use deceptive patterns though, they’ll subvert our expectations in ways that misdirect users, for example opening another page instead of their expected action of closing a pop up.

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Further your dark UX pattern knowledge

There are quite a few excellent resources on the web devoted to spotting, categorising and (hopefully) shaming dark patterns that crop up in digital products.

If you’re keen to see the methods we’ve talked about above in action, it’s well worth a browse around them. Here’s a selection of our favourites…

  • UXP2 Dark Patterns Raising awareness of UX dark patterns, with the help of practitioners and users.
  • Deceptive Design A continuation of Harry Brignull’s original work.
  • Hall of Shame A team of designers and researchers passionate about identifying dark patterns and unethical design examples.


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