“It’s always darkest before the dawn”

Dark design is a term coined to describe the practice of user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) techniques designed precisely to mislead or confuse the user into something that they neither requested nor wanted. A majority of these techniques could be relatively harmless and only leave an unnerving feeling of annoyance with the user i.e. subscription to newsletter. While others could cost the user much more financially and even professionally. Dark Patterns are not to be confused with Anti-Patterns, which are simply poor UI designs that result in a bad UX.

Who are you to make decisions for me?

This is the question that every user would have asked interaction designers. The world of marketing and design tend to butt heads occasionally. It is inevitable that sales and marketing departments will demand that designers make purchasing processes more persuasive and in some cases, use dark patterns in their marketing strategy. This type of marketing often leads to an initial surge of subscription/purchases but an extremely small repeat customer base.

While marketing can easily fall into such practices to meet sales targets, most companies understand that is it far more profitable to maintain a good brand image and present the option to up-sell should the user so desire. Amazon is an exceptional example of this, where they advertise related items immediately after something has been added to the cart.


Throwing Light on Dark Patterns

Since 2014, the EU’s new consumer right laws ban certain dark patterns related to e-commerce across Europe. “Hidden costs” are now illegal, including things such as postage & packaging or a required subscription cost. Everything has to be brought out in the open and clarified before checking out.

The “sneak into basket” pattern is illegal as well. This behavior occurs when a user visits their basket after adding something they actually wanted and finds out that it’s been joined by another unrequested item. In the past, most savvy users would have noticed and removed these unwanted items. But now, such charges must be declared and cannot be added by default.

“Forced continuity” usually relates to a limited free trial of a product or service that requires you to sign up with payment details and at the end of the free trial period, you automatically become a paying customer without notice. This is now considered illegal.

Let there be light

While the concepts behind most dark patterns are powerful, they have the potential to create positive UX. Microsoft Word offers a positive UX, for example, by not only asking if the user wants to save changes, but also by highlighting “save”. This is an interaction design pattern known as a smart default.


Understanding your users and their goals on your website/service is paramount to creating a positive outcome for both parties. In learning what the user is visiting for, you can use that information to increase conversions and offer more relevant information to the user.

So how can we use dark design to value add to our website/service? Dark patterns are successful precisely because they are founded on good interaction design patterns. The best way to learn from them is to start with a dark pattern…and then remove its darkness.


Dustin Cartwright (2013) http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2013/11/resisting-the-dark-side-a-primer-on-dark-pattern-ux/

Marli Mesibov (2013) http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/using-dark-patterns-for-good/

Marc Miquel (2014) http://uxmag.com/articles/throwing-light-on-dark-ux-with-design-awareness

Harry Brignull (2014) http://www.90percentofeverything.com/2014/08/26/some-dark-patterns-now-illegal-in-uk-interview-with-heather-burns/

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