Decoder: Understanding "Dark Patterns"

Have you ever tried to cancel a subscription service, or withdraw online consent, only to find yourself in a maze of never-ending submenus? It only took a few seconds to sign up for this service, but now you’ve spent 45 minutes clicking around only to find that you have to get a representative on the phone to cancel your service.

While this may seem like simple poor customer service, make no mistake, it’s an intentionally poor user experience– in fact, it’s often considered a best practice.

We’ve all experienced them. Online user experiences that are designed to make our lives harder.  As regulations designed to protect consumer data and guarantee online rights proliferate, so do these so-called “dark patterns”—UI designs intended to subvert these regulations by frustrating user experience and guiding users towards actions and outcomes that may not be in their best interest.

But what exactly are dark patterns, though? This Decoder article answers that question.

Dark patterns are essentially user experience (UX) tricks that websites and apps use to discourage certain actions, deliberately obscure information, or mislead users.

The term was first coined in 2010 by UX specialist Harry Brignull, who went on to launch DarkPatterns.Org to name and shame perpetrators, but the practice has been going on much longer than that.

For example, burying unpopular stipulations inside lengthy terms of service agreements that few — if any — consumers ever read is a dark pattern that is as old or older as the internet itself.

Dark patterns prey on human cognitive frailties. France’s data protection authority stated in its Shaping Choices In the Digital World report that “Dark patterns rely on human psychology, playing on cognitive biases that we’re often not aware of.” Essentially, they are designed to manipulate people’s minds into making decisions they might not make if presented with information in a more clear and direct manner.

Other examples of dark patterns

  • In e-commerce or travel booking: Creating a false sense of urgency for a product or service through scarcity signals indicating that a certain number of people are also interested in it (“Three others are looking at this hotel room right now.”)
  • In app download agreements: Forcing people to accept densely-worded terms before they can access a product or service
  • In data collection notices for opt-out: highlighting certain choices with more prominent or brightly coloured buttons while obscuring others
  • In subscription services: Making it very difficult to cancel a service or find opt-out links

Why dark patterns are problematic?

The inability to unsubscribe from a service results in a specific monetary harm: It makes people spend money they didn’t intend to. But dark patterns can cause other kinds of harms, as well.

These can take the form of emotional manipulation, like when a site places a countdown clock on an offer to accelerate a customer’s decision-making, even though time has no bearing on the sale or the use of the product or service. Or the harm could be the loss of privacy, as when an app forces users to turn off data collection in two different settings instead of making privacy settings easy to find.

A power imbalance exists between users and organizations, which makes it nearly impossible for individuals to always protect themselves from deceptive design practices.


Dark patterns exploit human psychology for the sole purpose of encouraging people to act against their best interests. This is unethical and can be illegal. A 2019 report from Princeton University revealed the prevalence of dark patterns. The researchers analyzed about 53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites and found that 11% of the sites surveyed featured dark patterns that were aggressive, misleading, deceitful, and potentially unlawful.

Dark patterns make customers unhappy and cause them to lose trust in a business. According to PwC, a majority of customers said that the customer experience was one of the most important factors in their decision to buy. Dark patterns equal bad customer experience. Bad customer experience equals loss of customers. 

Information sourced from DigiDay, NextGov, TopTal, and Cheq.AI

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