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  • Writer's pictureAnda Sărăcuț

The Dark Side of UX

Due to their desire to have big numbers in sales, subscriptions, and transactions, many companies tend to adopt deceptive ways to trick, manipulate or mislead users, and make them do something they wouldn’t normally do.

Designers have a really great power to guide the users so they achieve their goals on a website. As long as this persuasion helps the customers to have quick and seamless navigation through information and tasks, it is an extremely beneficial feature of good design. However, when the customers are forced to make decisions that are contrary to their intents or best interests, this is when dark design comes into discussion.

The term “dark pattern” was given by Harry Brignull in 2010. He explained that there is a significant difference between “bad design” and “dark patterns”, so people shouldn’t interchange the terms. When we talk about “bad design”, we think about a work of a lazy or superficial designer, but it definitely doesn’t have a malicious purpose. On the other hand, “dark patterns” are not mistakes made because of the designer’s laziness. They’ve been meticulously designed, with a thorough understanding of human psychology, definitely not with the user’s interest in mind.

People don’t read all of the material on a page, they are most likely to scan it - this is something that UX specialists are well aware of, so some of them are going to take advantage of this. When people scan the pages, they are guided by visual cues and their own assumptions from past experiences. This is a suitable behavior on the part of the user because they believe that the company which created the product has their best interest in mind. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the reality.

The dark side of UX

There are several types of dark patterns of UX - not all websites include them, but you surely experienced at least one of the following situations.

1. Roach Motel

This is when you get into a situation extremely easily, but it’s very hard to get out of. For example, some e-mail subscriptions don’t just have a simple “unsubscribe” button at the bottom which makes it easy for you to opt out. For unsubscribing, you have to send a separate e-mail, or worse, make a phone call.

2. Bait and switch

That’s when you intend to do one thing, but something undesirable happens instead. One of the most popular examples of this is from Microsoft in 2016, when their customers were asked through a pop-up to update to Windows 10. When they clicked on the “X” button, rather than closing the pop-up as it should, it started the update. This was extremely inconvenient because normally you associate “X” with “close”, so the users did nothing wrong.

3. Disguised ads

Just as the name clearly states, these are adverts that are in the form of other content or navigation, so the user will click on them. For example, some sites have advertisement buttons that look identical to the host website’s main buttons.

4. Misdirection

The design intentionally draws your attention to one thing, in order to distract you from another. If you are a member of Amazon Prime and wish to cancel your account, you’ll be directed to a page that highlights what perks you will miss. Of course, there is a tiny box in the corner of the screen that allows you to change your plan or cancel it.

5. Confirmshaming

It is known as the act of making the user feel guilty for making a certain decision. For example, a pop-up appears that will offer you something. You are free to accept or reject that offer, however, the wording behind the refusal will look something like this: “No, thanks, I enjoy making poor decisions” or “No, thanks, I don’t want this because I despise myself”.

6. Trick questions

They are confusing the users on purpose, using double negatives or complex wording, in order to nudge them into taking a certain action (one that the user didn’t intend to make). The question looks to ask one thing at first glance, but when it is read attentively, it poses a completely different question. For example, it can be a checkbox at the end of a form that says “If you don’t want to receive these offers, please opt out”... which is ticked by default. So it’s very confusing, should you opt out by unticking the box, or is opt out by default because the box is already ticked?

7. Hidden costs

When buying something online and reaching the final step of the process, you may discover some surprises, such as service or delivery fees, random taxes, etc. The fees might seem insignificant sometimes, but little by little, they will eventually turn out to be a lot of money for the company.

8. Privacy Zuckering

Yes, this one is named after Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. It happens when you are tricked into disclosing more personal information than you expected to. In its early days, Facebook’s users didn’t have much control over their privacy settings, and it was very easy for them to overshare by mistake.


These are only a few patterns of the dark side of UX that exist. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to fight them, the only way is to know what they are and to train your mind to be extremely aware and cautious when navigating websites, so you don’t fall into those traps. Learning about them and understanding how they work is an essential part of this process - so reading this article was a very good starting point.

Education and awareness are the only ways out. Take some time to inform yourself and others about this. Spread the word, because when it comes to dark patterns, our only allies are the other users. Tell those around you about what some companies are doing. Assist others in becoming aware of those patterns so they don’t become trapped - especially kids or seniors who don’t have experience in this digital world, and are more naive and vulnerable.



  1. Evil by Design - C. Nodder

  2. White Hat UX - T. Falbe, K. Andersen, M.M. Frederiksen

  3. Hooked - N. Eyal

  4. Examples from the Deceptive Design site - - managed by Harry Brignull, the creator of the term “dark patterns”


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