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Dark Patterns in Web Design: the Tricks and Why You Say Yes

Published on
May 6, 2024

Caught in the Web: Understanding Dark Patterns and Their Persuasive Tactics

The Tricks of the Trade: Deceptive Web Design

In the digital world, web design plays a crucial role in user experience (UX), guiding users through web interactions in a way that should be intuitive and enriching. However, not all web designs are created with user welfare in mind. Some are intentionally crafted to trick, manipulate, or deceive — these are known as "dark patterns." This blog post explores what dark patterns are, how they influence user behavior, and why users often fall for them despite their better judgment. Moreover, we discuss the significance of auditing and remediating dark patterns to ensure fair and ethical web practices.

What are Dark Patterns?

Dark patterns are deceptive UX/UI manipulations used in websites and apps to coax users into making decisions they wouldn’t have made if they had all the necessary information or a clear understanding of their choices. These manipulative practices are designed to benefit the business, often at the expense of the user. For example? The big fat green “Accept All” button, the so-called “free trial” which you’ll never be able to cancel, but also walls of jargon, inaccessible paths to exercise your rights… Sadly, there are hundreds of types of dark patterns, present in 97% of European sites according to the European Commission, 90% in Japan, really they are everywhere.

Types of Dark Patterns

Dr. Harry Brignull, with whom we have the pleasure to collaborate, coined the term “dark patterns” back in 2010 and identified 16 different types of dark patterns. No less than 17 different taxonomies have been created since, by researchers or regulators, and one ontology has also been created. Here are some examples of some forms dark patterns can take:

  • Confirm shaming: making the user ashamed of clicking on the button to decline a given offer, for example “no, I don’t want to look my best” to decline a sales offer
  • Fake scarcity: the user is pressured by a fake allegation of limited supply or stock
  • Bait and Switch: The user sets out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.
  • Misdirection: Focuses the user’s attention on one thing to distract from another.
  • Hidden Costs: Prices are not transparent; extra charges are revealed only at the last step of the checkout process.
  • Disguised Ads: Advertisements that are camouflaged as other kinds of content or navigation, misleading users into clicking on them.
  • Forced Continuity: When a free trial with a credit card ends, charges begin automatically without adequate notice.
  • Friend Spam: The product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretense it will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g., finding friends), but then spams all your contacts in a misleading manner.

Harry Brignull is also author of the book, “Deceptive Patterns, Exposing the Tricks Tech Companies Use to Control You,” a great resource for those who are interested.

Why You Say Yes to Deceptive Design

Understanding why users fall for dark patterns is complex, because it taps into fundamental aspects of human psychology, and neurosciences. We all have cognitive bias: sort of mental shortcuts that we resort to to save time or when placed in certain situations, to “act fast” with low cognitive effort. There are no less than 180 cognitive biases identified to date. They make us predictable, thus manipulable. Here are just a few examples of cognitive biases which are used by dark patterns:

  • Anchoring bias: it’s a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic.
  • Default effect: it’s the observation that the default option ‘is chosen more often than expected if it were not labeled the default’.
  • Framing effect: Framing describes a selective disclosure of information that positively frames the consequences of an action, while omitting the entailed risks.
  • Hyperbolic updating effect: it’s the tendency to overweight the immediate consequences of a decision and to underweight those that will occur in the future, makes it difficult for consumers to make rational disclosure decisions.
  • Optimistic bias: users tend to underestimate the probability that the fact of having logging into the site could have negative consequences for them.
  • Overchoice: having too many choices can overwhelm and paralyze consumers

The Impact of Dark Patterns

The use of dark patterns can have a lasting impact on consumer trust and business reputation. Users who feel tricked or coerced into making decisions are less likely to return, and word of such practices can quickly tarnish a brand's image. Moreover, regulatory bodies around the world are beginning to crack down on these unethical practices, and companies could face significant fines and legal fees for non-compliance.

Dark Pattern Audits: A Solution

Conducting dark pattern audits is an essential step for companies to identify and rectify manipulative elements in their UX/UI design. These audits involve a thorough review of web and app interfaces by UX, legal and privacy professionals who:

  • Identify deceptive elements that could mislead users.
  • Evaluate the agency implications of design choices.
  • Recommend changes to enhance transparency and user autonomy.

Remediation with Fair Patterns

Once dark patterns are identified, the next step is remediation with fair patterns. After 2 years of R&D, we created the concept of fair patterns as “interfaces that empower users to make free and informed choices”. On you will find a library of fair patterns: honest and transparent design alternatives which can easily be adapted to our client interfaces. This might involve:

  • Redesigning navigation elements to make them more transparent and less misleading
  • Providing clear and prominent opt-out options for subscriptions and consents
  • Ensuring that terms and conditions, as well as any costs, are visible and understandable from the outset


In conclusion, while dark patterns can temporarily boost metrics such as engagement or sales, the reality is that longterm they have a detrimental effect on user trust, customer life time value, and can lead to serious legal consequences. Companies committed to good user experience and sustainable growth must prioritise auditing and remedying these manipulative design tactics. By fostering an online environment based on transparency and respect for the user, businesses can build lasting relationships with their customers and stand out in a competitive digital marketplace.

Embracing fair patterns is not just about avoiding penalties or safeguarding reputation — it’s about committing to a higher standard of customer service and business ethics. In doing so, companies not only comply with increasing regulatory scrutiny but also contribute to a more ethical digital world.

For those interested in ensuring their web designs are free of dark patterns, partnering with experts who specialize in ethical UX is a crucial step. By conducting comprehensive audits and implementing fair, user-friendly design practices, your business can enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, and ultimately, ensure a sustainable and successful digital presence.

Amurabi helped us think out of the box in a very powerful way

Jolling de Pree

Partner at De Brauw

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