A dark pattern is a tactic used to manipulate users into taking actions that they would not have taken otherwise. Dark patterns can be used to trick users into giving up their personal information, making purchases they didn't intend to make, or taking actions that are not in their best interest. Some common examples of dark patterns include hidden fees, confusing language, pre-selected options, and forced continuity of subscription.
Dark patterns can be used in a variety of online environments including websites, mobile apps, and messaging platforms. They are commonly used in e-commerce and marketing contexts, where companies use them to trick users into making purchases or subscribing to services they didn't intend to.
Dark patterns can also be found in privacy policies and terms of service agreements, where companies may use confusing or misleading language to obscure the true nature of their data collection practices.
What types of dark patterns are there?
There are several types of dark patterns that are commonly used to manipulate or deceive users. Here are some of the most common types:
Sneaking is a type of dark pattern that involves hiding information or options in order to make it more difficult for users to make informed decisions. Here are some examples of sneaking:
- Hidden Fees: This is a common example of sneaking in which a company will advertise a product or service at a low price, but then add hidden fees at checkout. For example, a hotel might advertise a room for $100 per night, but then add a $50 "resort fee" at checkout that was not clearly disclosed earlier.
- Opt-Outs: Another example of sneaking is when a company makes it difficult to opt out of a service or subscription. For example, a website might automatically enroll users in a monthly subscription and bury the opt-out option deep within the website or make it difficult to find.
- Dark Patterns in User Interfaces: Sneaking can also take the form of confusing or misleading user interfaces. For example, a website might make it difficult to unsubscribe from email newsletters by requiring users to enter their email address and password multiple times, or by making the unsubscribe button difficult to find.
- Deceptive Wording: Finally, sneaking can involve using deceptive wording or design to make it difficult for users to understand the consequences of their actions. For example, a website might use confusing or vague language to make it difficult for users to understand what they are agreeing to when they click "Accept" on a terms and conditions page.
Urgency is a type of dark pattern that creates a sense of urgency or scarcity in order to push users into making a quick decision without fully considering the consequences. Here are some examples of urgency:
- Limited Time Offers: One of the most common examples of urgency is a limited-time offer. This can be seen on e-commerce websites that offer special deals that are only available for a limited time. The sense of urgency created by the offer can encourage users to make a quick purchase without fully considering the product or the price.
- Countdown Timers: Another way to create urgency is by using countdown timers. For example, a website might offer a discount that is only available for the next 24 hours, and display a countdown timer on the page to create a sense of urgency.
- Limited Stock: Creating a sense of scarcity can also be effective in creating urgency. For example, a website might display a message that a particular product is "selling fast" or that only a limited number of units are available.
- Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): FOMO is another common tactic used to create urgency. This can involve highlighting the popularity of a product or service, or implying that other people are taking advantage of an offer and the user will miss out if they don't act quickly.
- Flash Sales: Flash sales are another common example of urgency. These sales are typically short-lived and offer significant discounts or other incentives, which can encourage users to make a quick purchase without fully considering the consequences.
Misdirection is a type of dark pattern that involves using language, design, or elements to direct the user's attention away from something important or to distract them from a negative outcome. Here are some examples of misdirection:
- Confusing Wording: Misdirection can involve using confusing or vague language to make it difficult for users to understand what they are agreeing to or what the consequences of their actions might be. For example, a website might use a lot of technical jargon or legal language in its terms and conditions to make it difficult for users to understand what they are agreeing to.
- Hidden Costs: Another example of misdirection is hiding costs or fees. For example, a website might advertise a product or service at a low price, but then add hidden fees at checkout that were not clearly disclosed earlier. This can lead to frustration and confusion for users who thought they were getting a good deal.
- Distractions: Misdirection can also involve distracting the user from something important. For example, a website might use flashy graphics or other elements to draw the user's attention away from important information.
- Forced Continuity: Another form of misdirection is forcing continuity. This involves making it difficult or confusing for users to cancel a subscription or service, which can lead to unwanted charges or fees.
- Misleading Design: Finally, misdirection can involve using misleading design to make it difficult for users to understand what they are doing. For example, a website might use a button or link that looks like it will cancel a subscription but actually takes the user to a different page or signs them up for additional services.
4. Forced Action
Forced action is a type of dark pattern that uses design or language to make it difficult for users to avoid taking a particular action. Here are some examples of forced action:
- Opt-Out: One common example of forced action is when a website requires the user to opt out of a particular action, such as receiving marketing emails or sharing their personal information. For example, a website might have a pre-checked box that automatically signs the user up for a newsletter, and requires them to uncheck the box in order to opt out.
- Hidden Options: Another way to force action is by hiding or burying important options or information. For example, a website might make it difficult to find the option to cancel a subscription or delete an account, making it hard for users to take the action they want.
- Confirmshaming: Confirmshaming is a tactic that uses guilt or shame to force users into taking a particular action. For example, a website might use language like "No thanks, I don't want to save money" on a pop-up that encourages users to sign up for a newsletter or make a purchase. This language can make users feel guilty or embarrassed for not taking the action.
- False Choices: False choices are another way to force action. This involves presenting the user with a limited number of options that all lead to the same outcome. For example, a website might present the user with two options: "Upgrade to Premium" or "Continue with Basic". If the user clicks "Continue with Basic", they are taken to a page that urges them to upgrade.
- Trick Questions: Finally, some dark patterns use trick questions to force action. For example, a website might ask the user a question like "Are you sure you don't want to save 10%?" with two options: "Yes" and "No". If the user clicks "Yes", they are taken to a page that signs them up for a service or makes a purchase.
5. Friend Spam
Friend spam is a type of dark pattern that encourages users to share a website with their friends often without fully understanding or consenting to the action. Here are some examples of friend spam:
- Auto-Follow: One common example of friend spam is when a website automatically follows the user's contacts on social media. This can be done without the user's explicit consent and can result in the user unwittingly spamming their friends with unwanted messages.
- Invitations: Another way to encourage friend spam is by using invitations. For example, a website might ask the user to invite their friends to join the site, using language that implies that the user's friends will be interested in the product or service.
- Sharing on Social Media: Many apps encourage users to share their experiences or accomplishments on social media, using language that implies that the user's friends will be interested or impressed. However, this can result in the user spamming their friends with unwanted notifications.
- Contact Imports: Some apps allow users to import their contacts or address book in order to find friends or connections on the site. However, these imports can sometimes result in unwanted messages being sent to the user's contacts.
- Automatic Emails: Finally, some apps automatically send emails to the user's contacts, inviting them to join the site or app. This can be done without the user's explicit consent and can result in unwanted messages being sent to the user's contacts.
6. Roach Motel
The roach motel is a type of dark pattern that makes it easy for users to sign up for a service or product, but difficult or impossible to cancel or unsubscribe from it. The name "roach motel" comes from a brand of insect trap called the "Roach Motel," which was popular in the United States in the 1980s. The Roach Motel was designed to attract cockroaches, but then trap them inside so that they couldn't escape. The idea behind the roach motel dark pattern is similar - to attract users to sign up for a service or product, but then trap them inside by making it difficult to cancel or unsubscribe. The name "roach motel" has since been used more broadly to describe this type of dark pattern in other contexts. Here are some examples of the roach motel:
- Subscription Services: One common example of the roach motel is subscription services, such as magazines or streaming services. The user may be offered a free trial or introductory rate to sign up, but then find it difficult to cancel the subscription.
- Difficult Cancellation: Another way to implement the roach motel is by making it difficult or confusing to cancel a service or product. For example, a website might require the user to call a customer service number during limited hours in order to cancel or require the user to fill out a long cancellation form.
- Hidden Fees: Some websites may use hidden fees to keep users locked in. For example, a website might offer a free trial, but then automatically enroll the user in a paid subscription unless the user cancels before a certain date. This can make it difficult for users to avoid being charged.
- Complex Terms and Conditions: Some companies may use complex terms and conditions or legal language to make it difficult for users to understand the terms of their subscription. This can make it difficult for users to know what they are signing up for and can make it more difficult to cancel or unsubscribe later.
7. Bait and Switch
The bait and switch is a type of dark pattern where a company or website lures users in with an attractive offer, only to switch to a less desirable option once the user is engaged. Here are some examples of the bait and switch:
- Discounts and Deals: One common example of the bait and switch is when a company offers a discount on a product, but then switches the user to a more expensive or less desirable option once the user is committed. For example, a website might advertise a 50% off sale, but then only offer the discount on a limited selection of items.
- Hidden Fees: Another way to implement the bait and switch is by using hidden fees to increase the price of service once the user is committed. For example, a website might advertise a low monthly fee for a subscription service but then add additional fees or charges at checkout.
- Limited Availability: Some companies may use limited availability to create a sense of urgency or scarcity, and then switch the user to a less desirable option once the user is committed. For example, a website might advertise a limited-time offer, but then switch the user to a more expensive or less desirable product once the offer expires.
- Unrelated Products: Some companies may use the bait and switch by advertising a product or service that is related to what the user is searching for, but then switch the user to an unrelated or less desirable option once the user is engaged.
8. Privacy Zuckering
Privacy Zuckering is a type of dark pattern that involves manipulating users into publicly sharing more information than they intended to. The term "Privacy Zuckering" is named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has been criticized for his company's handling of user data. Here are some examples of Privacy Zuckering:
- Friend Tagging: One common example of Privacy Zuckering is when an app encourages users to tag their friends in photos or posts, without making it clear that the friends will be publicly identified or tagged. This can lead to users unwittingly sharing information about their friends without their consent.
- Hidden Sharing Options: Another way to implement Privacy Zuckering is by using hidden or confusing sharing options to encourage users to share more information than they intended. For example, a website might offer a "Share" button that automatically posts a user's activity to their profile, without making it clear that the post will be public.
- Opt-Out Settings: Some websites or apps may use opt-out settings to encourage users to share more information than they intended. For example, a website might automatically opt users into sharing their location data or other personal information, without making it clear that they have the option to opt out.
- Misleading Wording: Some companies may use misleading wording to encourage users to share more information than they intended. For example, a website might use wording like "Connect with Facebook" to encourage users to link their Facebook account, without making it clear that this will share their activity on the website with Facebook.
How do you spot dark patterns?
Recognizing dark patterns can sometimes be difficult because they are designed to be subtle and manipulative. However, there are a few key signs to look out for:
- Pressure tactics: If a website or app is using urgent language, time-sensitive offers, or other pressure tactics to get you to take action quickly, it may be a dark pattern.
- Hidden information: If important information is hidden or difficult to find, it may be a sign of a dark pattern. This could include small print or hidden checkboxes that sign you up for additional services.
- Forced actions: If you are required to take certain actions in order to proceed, such as entering personal information or subscribing to a newsletter, it may be a dark pattern.
- Misleading design: If a website or app is designed to look like it's doing one thing when it's actually doing something else, it may be a dark pattern. For example, a button that looks like a "Close" button but actually signs you up for a service.
- Manipulative language: If a website or app is using manipulative language, it may be a dark pattern. For example, a website that says "Join the thousands of satisfied customers" without providing any actual evidence.
How do you prevent from becoming a victim of dark patterns?
Here are some tips on how to prevent becoming a victim of dark patterns:
- Be aware of the most common dark patterns: Educate yourself on the different types of dark patterns so that you can recognize them when you encounter them.
- Read the fine print: Always read the terms and conditions and privacy policies carefully before signing up for a product or service. Make sure you understand what you're agreeing to.
- Take your time: Don't rush to make a decision when you encounter a dark pattern. Take the time to consider your options and read all the information carefully.
- Look for alternative options: If you encounter a dark pattern, look for alternative products or services that don't use dark patterns.
- Use ad blockers and privacy tools: Ad blockers and privacy tools can help you avoid dark patterns by blocking ads and preventing websites from tracking your activity.
- Report instances of dark patterns: If you encounter a dark pattern, report it to the appropriate authorities, such as consumer protection agencies or website administrators.
By following these tips, you can reduce your risk of becoming a victim of dark patterns and protect your privacy and consumer rights.
Dark patterns are manipulative design techniques that trick users into taking actions they didn't intend to take or into giving up more personal information than they wanted to. They often rely on pressure tactics, hidden information, forced actions, misleading design, and manipulative language to achieve their goals.
Preventative measures for avoiding dark patterns include being aware of the different types of dark patterns, reading the fine print and understanding terms and conditions before signing up for a product or service, taking your time and considering your options, looking for alternative options, using ad blockers and privacy tools, reporting instances of dark patterns, and generally being cautious and skeptical when encountering online offers.
By following these preventative measures and being vigilant for signs of dark patterns, users can protect themselves from being manipulated into actions that they may later regret or that compromise their privacy and security.