Finding clarity: how to spot "dark patterns" online

Dark patterns are found everywhere, from online retailers to travel booking websites. They even show up on search engines and social media. But if you know how to recognize them, you'll also learn how not to fall for their tricks.

The term “dark patterns” was coined in 2010 by user experience expert Harry Brignull. By 2020, the concept of dark patterns was already so mainstream that Google's latest home page redesign , featuring ads that were almost indistinguishable from organic search results, were openly criticized across media outlets worldwide.

Dark patterns are essentially design tricks based on human psychology that are used to provoke or manipulate people into signing up for a subscription, buying something, or giving away more personal information than they thought or intended.

Awareness of these deceptive digital practices led to the creation of an online community dedicated to spotting dark patterns and shaming them on the web. Their mission is to educate the public on how to recognize and defend themselves from dark patterns.

How do dark patterns work?
When you use websites and apps, you don't read every single word on the page – you skim the text and make assumptions. If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of this by making a page look like it is saying one thing when it is, in fact, saying another.

Common dark patterns may include the use of particular colours, placement of buttons, unclear texts, or incomplete information. These range from seemingly harmless visual manipulation to actually violating user privacy.

Here are some examples:

1- Confirm shaming

The act of guilting the user into opting into something. The option to decline has been introduced in such a way as to shame the user into compliance.

2- Forced continuity

When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning. In some cases, this is made even worse by making it difficult to cancel the membership.

3- Friend spam

The product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretence it will be used for a desirable outcome (eg finding friends), but then spams all your contacts in a message that claims to be from you.

4- Privacy sugaring

You are tricked into sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to. Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.


The good news is that legislation is starting to keep up. The European Union recently released a new guidance for avoiding dark patterns that violate user privacy. Anyone working in web and UX design should keep an eye out not to violate these guidelines since "Social media providers remain responsible and accountable for ensuring the GDPR compliance of their platforms."

The darkness comes to light because UX design choices are being employed to be intentionally deceptive. Design is supposed to influence and persuade, not manipulate.

One can argue that using colours, visuals or UI designs principles to influence clicking is cheeky but not necessarily unethical. However, if users are tricked into sharing data or spamming their contacts – that's stripping their power of choice, and it's hard to consider any circumstance where that would be ok.