Dark Patterns in Web Design

What are dark patterns?

As web designers, it is our job to communicate to an audience through a functional web design. We help guide visitors by using colors, text, layout, and much more to help navigate and guide a user to complete certain steps that benefit both the user and business. A web designer has a lot of power when it comes to the psychological aspect of a user’s experience. 

With this power comes the responsibility to make sure when someone visits your site they leave feeling it was well organized, with a clear visual hierarchy, specific CTAs (call to actions) supported with a layout that is appropriate for the specific industry. 

Most web designers strive to create a positive user experience that includes a creative design that is comfortable from start to finish. But sometimes businesses can focus on a specific metric, sign-up, or goals that can weaken said experience for their own gain. This means that they are prioritizing “their goals” above the “user’s goals.” And with this type of web building perspective, it is very damaging and can potentially cause someone to never visit that site again.

Dark patterns are tactics and tricks that are misleading and use confusing elements in design in order to get a business to force a user to do exactly what they want them to do. You may have come across this type of deceptive web design without even realizing or paying any attention. These types of tricks can include making a user sign up or purchase something that they didn’t realize by intentionally not being clear and sneaking a tiny bit of text in places one would normally not look. Dark patterns focus on human psychology to enable users to do what they really don’t want to. Let’s go over a few ways that businesses sneak dark patterns into their websites and what you should look out for if you run into something similar.

Shaming the Users

There are a lot of reasons why I hate pop-ups but something that I really can’t stand is shaming a customer when someone just isn’t interested. Pop-ups are a great design tool that has been proven to work for many companies that offer great resources, deals, and limited-time offers. But there is definitely a dark side when businesses get a little greedy.

Not only do businesses create dark pattern pop-ups that make you work way too hard to close the teensy x’s in the strangest spots, they now think it is ok to say “you think you’re too good for our product” or “I guess you don’t want to get real results” type of confirmations that leaves you feeling not so great.

These types of pop-ups try to coerce a user into doing what they want by trying to make them feel a bit bad. It may not bother a lot of people but if a brand resorts to shaming a visitor into going through with their offer, then that is a big no-no and they don’t deserve your business.

“no thanks, I don’t want to look my best”

Dark patterns - misdirection

multiple popups that blend into a website

Intentional Misdirection

Misdirection design on the web is a common tactic used by the shadiest businesses. These types of monsters tend to piggyback off of a real company’s success by disguising themselves as a similar business that may even be a better alternative, but it is a scam. You can determine if you are being misdirected almost immediately.

A good way to tell is if you read an appealing article that offers you a service or even a quote and you are sent down a rabbit hole to a completely different website or you get into a loop of annoying popups that all want your information so your inbox will be bombarded with useless crap. Always make sure you are browsing a secured site to protect your private information because there are many levels of scammers, some trying to spam numbers for sales and others who want to steal valuable information.

Trapped in unwanted subscription

This dark pattern is frustrating and can seem like such an unnecessary hassle. When you sign up for an account or subscription, I believe that it shouldn’t take much to cancel if you decide that the service is no longer working for you. Some companies will disagree. Trapping a client within an account will most likely involve levels of researching a way to get out of it and will inevitably lead to an unwanted phone call with tech support.

This is a way for companies to keep you in their grasp for as long as they can. And actually works because who really wants to spend so much time canceling something when they can just shrug it off and keep it. I mention this tactic because all of the services begin on a web page. An unclear, non-descriptive account sign-up that gives you no clues of the dread you will come to face if you no longer need it. This bad user experience of withholding information is just plain mean.

Dark patterns - trapped

“Let Me Be Free!!!!!!!!”


Dark patterns are becoming more and more popular as businesses think of clever ways to negatively impact their users by getting them to subscribe for something that will take them a phone call to cancel, unknowingly take permission to sell data, and by placing fine prints in hard to find locations. If you are interested in learning more about dark patterns or to complain about a shameful company using these similar tactics against you, I encourage you to share your experience online using @darkpatterns on Twitter and read about other wild stories.