This week, we see what there is to learn from venturing into the dark side of UX.

Hacked brains, explained

If you want to engage in some light mind-control, design might be the answer.

Abby Clark


Learning Organisation

4 minute read

We can think of UX design as the benevolent hand that gently pushes users down the right path to reach their goal. But what happens when its intention turns from benevolent to sinister? When it manipulates the customer into making a choice that’s not in their best interest? These deceptive interfaces, often referred to as dark patterns1, are the evil step-sibling to UX design.

In short
  • UX design is based on designing for the good of the user, but dark patterns manipulate users into making a choice they might not have otherwise.
  • Dark patterns are used across the internet, creating bad customer experiences.
  • The principles of dark patterns aren’t inherently harmful, so it’s possible to use them to benefit the customer.
What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns use behavioural psychology1 to trigger decisions that serve a business, rather than their customer. By employing dark patterns, businesses can influence customer behaviour to reach their goals at the expense of their customers’ time, money or even feelings.

Lurking dark patterns

While it might sound like dark patterns are only used by unscrupulous designers, Google, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn are all guilty of using this sort of deceptive design2. Here are some common examples you’ve probably encountered before:

A scavenger hunt for the cancel button. When you try to cancel a subscription, the button to cancel is tiny in comparison to the button that will keep you subscribed. The designer keeps the customer on the ‘right’ route by concealing paths to other, undesirable actions3.

The blink-and-you-miss-it default setting. Privacy settings are the worst offenders in this category. The effort to turn data sharing off often dwarfs the one click it takes to turn it on. Instead of considering whether taking action might be more beneficial to us, our status-quo bias means that we’re more likely to accept default options3.

A guilt-inducing pop-up. Rather than allowing a customer to make a decision free of judgement, dark pattern pop-ups turn simple CTAs into value-driven statements that shame you into selecting one option over the other. This can be as simple as implying you’ll miss out on something if you don’t sign up to a service – or go as far as implying you’ll do harm to others if you don’t take action.

“Dark patterns use behavioural psychology to trigger decisions that serve a business, rather than their customer.”
Can dark patterns turn good?

The examples above are all defined as dark patterns because of their intent – basically, they manipulate the customer into choosing what’s good for the business, rather than what’s right for them. The line blurs when designers use persuasive tactics in the name of doing good for their customers. Chris Nodder compares persuasive design to a white lie that helps a customer make a good decision4.

Think about the default setting scenario. Imagine it’s always set to the option that serves the customer (whether that’s free shipping or the highest privacy settings). Then, a status-quo bias becomes an asset to the customer, rather than a liability. But many UX designers still believe that pushing a user into a choice is never an ethical pursuit5.

Drawing the line

While dark patterns can be used to trick and manipulate customers, in some cases, it really is the thought that counts. Designers can actually help customers by using the same tricks for good. Just like in any arena of power, it’s up to you to draw the line between harmful manipulation and helpful persuasion.

on disengaging users
Rather than using dark patterns, platforms like TikTok and Instagram have embraced features that get users off their platform (at least temporarily). Scrolling for hours on TikTok? In 2020, the app started encouraging users to go outside, drink water, or head to bed. Soon after, Instagram released its ‘Take a Break’ feature.

Written by Abby Clark, 52 Words and editing by Abby Clark, key visual by Alice Guo, page built by Patrick Brennan
  1. Lauren Mcnab, What is persuasive design and the attention economy, (26 June 2021), Medium
  2. Harry Brignull,What is deceptive design? (undated), Deceptive Design.
  3. Anders Toxboe, The Power and Danger of Persuasive Design (9 Jan 2018), UX Booth.
  4. Chris Nodder, How Deceptive Is Your Persuasive Design? (6 Aug 2013), UX Magazine.
  5. Angus Morrison, How to use dark UX patterns for good (26 Apr 2018), Prototypr.

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