Dark Patterns - It's not what you think

As we all (probably) know by now, grocery stores are carefully laid out in a way to encourage or nudge you toward particular behaviors and purchases. Supermarket consultants make big money arranging stores based on psychographic analysis of the expected customers.

But this isn't a discussion of supermarkets specifically. If you're interested in how supermarket layout and product placement influences your shopping decisions then Google is your friend.

This article is about the web site equivalent of the supermarket designs I mentioned above. The term Dark Patterns is given to the sneaky layout designs used by website designers to unfavorably manipulate you.

marionette using a computer

It's Absolutely Everywhere

All websites are designed with the intention of influencing your experience by steering your behavior in a predictable way -- your clicks, what you read, etc. Even my website is laid out in a way that I believe presents my offers, articles, and such in a logical helpful way. But when a site designer wishes to influence your experience in a way that is more beneficial to the site owner than it is to you, then the designer may employ sneaky tricks or dark patterns to accomplish that. Most ethicists believe this is, well, unethical. I believe that, too.

Web site designers that resort to dark patterns do so because they know that most people would choose against whatever thing they are pushing had they been upfront and honest.

If you've ever downloaded a toolbar or browser add-on then you've almost certainly been victim to dark pattern influence. Most people don't intentionally download browser (that's Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) add-ons other than ad-blockers -- and even that's uncommon. There's plenty of other crap that people regularly inadvertently download because they don't understand the subtleties of the links they click on or the meaning and consequences of browser messages that might appear.

Retail sites employing dark patterns may include confusing verbiage that upon a quick glance appears to say one thing but actually says the opposite. Tactics include double negatives, confusing opt-out wording, and boxes that you tick if you don't want the offer, etc. These are carefully crafted and focus-group tested to ensure that an inorganically elevated number of people perform the actions most desired by the site operator.

This might include an accessory that's added to your online shopping cart when you select a product. It may be insurance or an extended warranty added on. It may be a confusingly worded unsubscribe link to get off some stupid email list.

LA Fitness

For example, LA Fitness lets you easily sign-up online in a process that takes just minutes. But gyms like LA Fitness know that people often lose interest and want to cancel their memberships soon after. So to make that as difficult as possible, LA Fitness requires members to snail mail a printed letter to their corporate headquarters and wait "6 to 8 weeks for processing"! You cannot cancel online and not even by visiting the gym in person. The online signup process makes no mention that cancelling requires mailing a letter to the corporate office. The offline cancellation method is a form of dark pattern called a Roach Motel. If you're old enough then you remember the famous pest control ad, right? "Roaches check in, but they don't check out."


Another Roach Motel: Our phone service is Ooma (a pretty decent VoIP system). A couple of years ago, I signed-up online for 500 minutes of international calling. Now, we no longer need that feature but you cannot unsubscribe online. Worse, there are no instructions on how to remove the international minutes plan. I finally opened a chat box to ask an Ooma agent and he said that customers have to contact Ooma support. FFS, really??? (The chat agent cancelled it, but I had to figure that out for myself)


Another dark pattern is called Forced Continuity. This is when you accept a free trial (that you probably didn't want but had to agree to in order to do something specific and limited), then at the end of the trial your payment method on file is automatically charged a monthly or whatever fee sometimes without additional warning.

This happened to me not long ago. We wanted to stream a movie on Amazon.com, but the only way to watch was to accept a free one-week trial to Showtime. There was no purchase or rental option. We could watch only by agreeing to a free trial to Showtime. Grudgingly, we accepted it, intending to cancel immediately after watching the movie.

Of course, we forgot all about it and only months later did I discover I had been paying the Amazon.com bandits $12 a month for a subscription service we never used (except to watch that movie). I asked for a full refund and got it.


In the Amazon case above, the dark pattern wasn't something obfuscated or hidden, it was an obstruction (could not buy or rent the movie) specifically designed to force a sign-up to Showtime in order to watch the movie. We only wanted to rent the movie, but Amazon, in a subscriber-capturing agreement with Showtime, did not offer a rental or purchase option. They offered the movie via subscription only knowing full well that lots of customers, like me, would subscribe then forget to cancel. That is a dark pattern.

​Data Heist

This is huge. Facebook and countless other websites want your data. But they don't just come out and say it. Buried deep, deep inside the Terms of Service is the legalese that describes how your data is stolen from you. They know damn well that no one except watchdog groups will ever read those walls of text.

The more likely that someone (you, dear reader) will think hard or care about agreeing to a condition in order to proceed, the more likely that condition will be obfuscated. Websites and companies that do this are willfully and deliberately trying to deceive you.

Learn More

A con man can only trick you if you don't know the ways of the con. And that's really what this article is all about -- to make you aware that dark patterns are a thing and to be on the lookout, that's all. Simply knowing they exist takes you a long way in helping to avoid being a victim to them.

Here's a link to an interesting article about dark patterns. You can also google "dark pattern web design" -- there's a lot to read.


https://techcrunch.com/2018/07/01/wtf-is-dark-pattern-design/   A bit lengthy but a good read on dark patterns.