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Dark Patterns

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 super-market layout and product placement influences your shopping decisions then Google is your friend. I'm not specifically suggesting that carefully arranged supermarket layouts are dishonest. But do understand that it's done to influence your shopping habits.

This article is about the unscrupulous web site equivalent of the supermarket designs I mentioned above. The term Dark Patterns (and Deceptive Design) is given to the deliberately sneaky layout and page progression used by website designers to unfavorably manipulate you for their gain.

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. That's all ok. 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 use sneaky tricks or dark patterns/deceptive design to accomplish that. Most ethicists believe this is, well, unethical.

Web site designers that resort to dark patterns do so because they know that pretty much everyone would choose against whatever thing they are pushing had they been upfront and honest in the first place.

If you've ever downloaded a toolbar or browser* add-on then you may have been a victim of dark pattern influence. Most people don't intentionally download browser add-ons other than ad-blockers -- and even that's pretty uncommon.

* Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, etc.

Retail sites that use dark patterns may include confusing verbiage that upon a quick glance appears to say one thing (something desirable) but actually says the opposite (something you won't like). Tactics include double negatives, confusing opt-out wording, and check boxes that you tick if you don't want the offer. It may be a confusingly worded unsubscribe link to get off some stupid email list. These are carefully crafted and tested to ensure that an artificially elevated number of people perform the actions most desired by the site operator.

Cart Packing

Our first example is Cart Packing. This might include an accessory, fee, or other unexpected add-on that's quietly added to your online shopping cart that you won't see until you checkout. Maybe you are already many screens into a difficult or tedious purchase process (like buying airline or concert tickets) that are you loathe to start all over again to try to avoid it.


In the case of concert or event tickets, it's probably an expensive "convenience fee" that cannot be avoided. But by showing you that fee at the last step, the checkout, the web site operator, like TicketMaster, is hoping that you are too invested in the tickets to abandon it all now. This is dishonest and has actually gotten the attention of congress. Will they act? Heh heh, probably not.

Or you could be booking a hotel room only to find a mandatory "resort surcharge", "energy recovery fee", or some such nonsense on the last screen where you'd normally confirm the booking.

Signing up for cable TV is rife with added junk fees, often worded to appear like they are involuntary government taxes or fees.

Roach Motel

Another dark pattern is the Roach Motel*. For example, LA Fitness (a nationwide gym chain) lets you easily sign-up online in a process that takes just minutes. But gyms like LA Fitness know darn well that people lose interest and want to cancel their memberships soon after joining. So to make cancelling 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 fails to mention that cancelling requires mailing a letter to the corporate office.


* If you're of a certain age then you remember the famous pest control ad, right? "Roaches check in, but they don't check out."

Another Roach Motel: Our home phone service is Ooma which is actually a pretty decent VoIP system. A while back, I signed-up online for an add-on package of 500 minutes per month of international calling. About a year later we no longer needed that feature but I could not unsubscribe online. Worse, there are no instructions on how to remove the international minutes plan. The website was completely silent on that. I finally opened a chat box to ask an Ooma agent and they said that customers have to contact Ooma support. C'mon, really? The chat agent cancelled it for me, but I had to figure that out for myself.

Forced Continuity

Another dark pattern is called Forced Continuity. An example is when you accept a free trial for something then at the end of the trial your payment method is automatically charged a monthly, or whatever, fee sometimes without any additional warning.

I got snagged by this, too. We wanted to stream a movie on Amazon, but the only way to watch this particular movie was to accept a free one-week trial to Showtime. There was no purchase or rental option for the movie. 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 Amazon $12 a month for a subscription service we never used (except to watch that one 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 do action a unless we agreed to condition b) specifically designed to force a sign-up to Showtime in order to watch said movie. Amazon, in a subscriber-capturing agreement with Showtime offered the movie via Showtime 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 one is huge. Facebook and countless other websites badly want your data. But they don't just come out and say it because no one would tolerate that. Buried deep, deep inside the Terms of Service* is the legalese that describes how your data is used (or misused). They know very well that no one except watchdog groups will ever read those walls of text a/k/a the Terms of Service. This is another dark pattern.

The more likely that someone (that's you, dear reader) might think long and hard or be reluctant about agreeing to a condition in order to proceed, the more likely that said web site will obfuscate that condition. Websites and companies that do this are deliberately trying to deceive you! That should be illegal.

* The Terms of Service (TOS) is the document that gives websites and companies the permission and legal cover to do many of the dodgy things they do. Most TOSs are extraordinarily lengthy legal agreements, taking a long time to read and fully comprehend. This is deliberate.

How Lawmakers Can Help

Dark Patterns are one of the (many) dishonest things that companies do because, unfortunately, it works. It cynically takes advantage of people, their understandable assumptions, and how complicated life is today, to rip people off. Our lawmakers could help.

For the Cart Packing dark pattern, companies should be required to disclose any and all mandatory fees and add-ons when the desired product or service's price is first displayed, and not sprung on you at the very end when you'd be ready to click the buy button.

For the Roach Motel dark pattern, companies should be required to offer a cancellation feature using the same methods that were offered for the original sign-up. For the LA fitness and Ooma examples above, that means requiring an online cancellation feature. Not one that requires contacting the company solely through other, offline ways.

For the Forced Continuity dark pattern, companies should be required to re-confirm the subscription a few days before it converts from a free trial to paid mode with a default rejection unless the user separately and explicitly affirms to an automatic conversion at the time of signing up for a trial. And declining any such automatic conversion must not lessen the trial experience.

For the Data Heist dark pattern, companies should be required to disclose in a clear and concise manner, without wading through an impossibly long Terms of Service statement, all the ways that your data will be shared and with whom. Furthermore, we need an EU-style GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) to help keep big tech at bay.

Other dark patterns have mitigating solutions as well. But like fixing many dishonest anti-consumer scams, it requires our lawmakers to care more about their constituency than their donor class/lobbyists and to pass remedying legislation. That's a big ask, I know. 🙄

Learn More

After observing and experiencing the things I discussed above I started looking further into dark pattern web design. What I found was eye-opening -- far more than just the few things I discuss above.

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 watch out. Simply knowing they exist takes you a long way in helping to avoid being a victim of them.

You can google "dark pattern web design" -- there's a lot to read.

More reading here...   -- Now known as Deceptive Design.

​   A bit lengthy but a good read on dark patterns.

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