Just launched: 500+ SaaS Onboarding Flows, Emails, and Case Studies.

What is the Dark Side of Design and How it Can Trick Us? (+15 Real-World Examples)

Maria Lystopad
July 11, 2022
13-minute read
tenscope linkedintenscope xtenscope whatsup share buttontenscope facebook

In this article, you will learn how deceptive design works and how to recognize the most common dark UX patterns. We will suggest a way out of this labyrinth for users, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Ready to dive into dark waters of deceptive design? Let’s go!

What is dark UX?

Deceptive practices in design have existed for quite a while and are rooted in advertising and propaganda. But only in 2010 a UX designer with a PhD in Cognitive Science Harry Brignull coined the term dark UX patterns. Later Brignull created a website that brings awareness about deceptive design.

PrincetonUniversity's 2019 study defined dark UX patterns as design choices that benefit an online service by coercing, steering, or deceiving users into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions.

To be honest, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish bad UX from dark patterns. Messy interfaces, misleading links, and UX copy are common for poorly made and tricky designs.The thing is that both bad UX and dark UX confuse users.

However, dark UX confuses users intentionally. Confused users easily fall into sales traps or click ads, right?

In fact, companies using dark UX patterns are well aware of human psychology.

How dark UX tricks our brains?

Deceptive design is based on behavioral psychology. Here are five psychological theories that dark UX designers rely on. Understanding them helps us make more informed decisions and resist dark UX tricks.

  • Hick’s Law. The time and effort to make a decision increases with a number of options. That is why dark UX is often so confusing.
  • Nudge theory. Many small decisions we make unconsciously. So subtle context changes can lead users to make a certain decision without forcing them. This is performed through priming or a pre-selected default option.
  • Fitt’s Law. The time and effort to reach the goal decreases with the size and distance to the target. That explains why paid ads are so big and the `Unsubscribe` buttons are so small on the screen.
  • Anchoring bias. Users rely a great deal on the first element they see or interact with. So designers make sure that the most important elements are in front of users right away. The question whom does UX serve here?
  • Expectation bias. Human beings are heavily relying on their expectations. The design uses it to shape the user experience. For example, we can easily find the menu where we expect it on the screen. But dark UX patterns parasite on this too.

Dark UX designers exploit these and other cognitive biases. They grab users’ attention with UI elements and UX practices and lead them to certain actions that benefit the company.

“The way that companies implement the deceptive practices has gotten more sophisticated over time,”  warns designer Jeremy Rosenberg, one of the contributors to the Dark Patterns website.

The question pops up: if dark UX is so evil why use these practices at all?

Why do companies and designers use dark UX patterns?

Competition in the digital market is tough. It’s easy to understand companies that use persuasive powers of design to survive. And there’s no harm in it.

Steering users along the user journey is a big part of designing the user experience in general. And the temptation to persuade them just a little more to achieve your business goals is high.

persuasive design and manipulative design
Image credit:Spotify spotify.com

Spotify gets very emotional trying to persuade users not to cancel their membership.

The problem is the line between persuasive design and manipulative design can be blurry.

Design has a real impact on metrics. So often companies are ready to do whatever it takes to improve their business performance indicators. That’s where manipulative design comes to the stage. But there are some pitfalls on that path.

Problems with dark UX

Companies that implement dark UX should take into account the risks and problems associated with dark patterns.

Dark UX ruins the customer experience

People do not always know what dark patterns are. But they often can sense harmful intent. Users get frustrated when they notice dark patterns. For example, they can’t easily unsubscribe from annoying email marketing or get charged automatically by an online service without notification.

Dark UX practice scan increase certain metrics for the company by tricking users. But it often goes along with a growing unpleasant feeling towards the brand. And in worse scenarios, customers can actually sue the company.

Dark UX is Illegal            

Let’s be clear. Dark UX patterns are not a banned criminal practice. But some of them led to stolen personal data, damaged reputation, money loss, or even affected health. More and more frustrated customers turn to court to protect their rights and create precedent cases.

Governments react too. For example, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is monitoring illegal dark patterns.

Officials try to regulate dark patterns, especially when it comes to healthcare apps and UX for kids. Personal data protection is also a big challenge.

Despite the efforts, the law is still behind when it comes to dark UX. But hurt brand image is a far more real problem for companies willing to play dark.

Dark patterns hurt brand image

In 2013 the professional networking giant LinkedIn was sued by its users for reputational damage. The company used dark patterns to fish users’ contacts and sent tons of personalized emails inviting them to expand the network. Linkedin eventually settled to pay 13 million dollars in compensation.

But that was not the worst. Professionals around the world started associating the product with spammy marketing and dark patterns. LinkedIn had to put a lot of effort to get back the trust and respect.

Some dark UX patterns are a serious threat to users’ privacy, finances, or ability to make informed decisions. Others are quite harmless and you can see them everywhere. Let’s take a closer look at dark UX practices.

15 most common types of dark UX patterns

Learning about dark UX will help you improve your internet safety. Because the more you recognize dark UX the more you can resist them.

We have put together a list of the most common dark UX patterns. For each dark pattern, you will find a brief explanation and examples.

1. Bait and Switch

This UX practice has two components: bait and switch.

bait and switch design
Bait and Switch

Bait is a tempting price or item that the user is hooked by. But after you click on it, the offer switches to a less appealing one. This dark pattern is often combined with hidden costs.

2. Hidden Costs

The user sees a good price, makes steps to get the product and only last minute learns that there are additional costs like shipping. This dark UX pattern parasites the feeling that we almost got the desired item and feel sorry to let it go. So often we just buy it for whatever price.

how to recognize hidden costs
Hidden Costs

3. Disguised Ads

brands masking ads
Image credit: blogs.ubc.ca

This type of advertisement masks itself as something useful or just non-advertising content. Users click on it and realize it is an ad. This dark UX pattern is taking over social media that want to resist users’ banner blindness.

4. Forced Continuity

We talk about forced continuity dark UX when the paid subscription was prolonged without notifying a user. This dark pattern describes any similar situations when the user has no choice but to continue.

they made me do it
Forced Continuity

5. Friend Spam

The product fishes for users' contacts pretending it has a noble purpose: for instance, to match users by interests. Then your data is used to spam your friends advertising the service or the product, often using your name. This was the case with Linkedin which sneakily imported contacts of their users and then sent spammy emails.

friends spamming me
Friend Spam

6. Price Comparison Prevention

To make an informed decision you want to compare prices. But the confusing design makes the comparison hard or impossible. This dark UX pattern is called price comparison prevention.

digital products with no price
Image credit: linkedin

7. Privacy Zuckering

It’s a deceptive practice that tricks users into revealing more private information than they meant to. Confusing design or wording can trick users into accepting harmful privacy terms.

tricky design privacy
Privacy Zuckering

And yes, it is named after Meta CEO because of how a company tracks every step of their users carefully collecting information about them.

8. Roach Motel

Roach Motel is a classical trap. The design makes it very easy for a user to appear in one situation but then extremely hard to get out of another. For example, most sign-ups or premium subscriptions are very easy to join. And canceling a membership is often designed trickier to prevent users from leaving.


canceling a membership is often designed trickier
Image credit: Skillshare skillshare.com

Skillshare is a great educational platform. And getting a premium account there is super easy. However, canceling a paid subscription takes five steps and on each, the platform tries to confirm the user to change their mind. This is Hick’s Law and Roach Motel dark pattern in action. 

9. Sneak into Basket

shopping cart fraud
Sneak into Basket

The name of this dark UX pattern is loud and clear. But aside from literally sneaking items into a shopping cart, there are less obvious practices. Some companies sneakily add to users' purchase something like additional subscriptions.

10. Misdirection

UX design is meant to navigate users through digital products. But sometimes it intentionally misdirects users. For instance, the user wants to buy a plane ticket without extra luggage. The design encourages users to go on with the `20Kg` option throughout the buying process. The alarming ‘Are you sure?’ and exclamation mark make the customer think they are on the wrong way.

design miss direction
Image credit: Pegasus Airlines https://www.flypgs.com/en

11. Trick Questions

tricky design
Trick Questions

When we read the text we don’t actually read it letter by letter or even word by word. We scan it and recognize familiar meanings. That’s why when quickly scanning the text people often rely on their expectations. Trick questions dark UX pattern uses our expectation bias. It sneaks the meanings we don’t expect hoping users will not notice a contradiction it usually contains.

12. Confirm-shaming

guilt design ideas

A manipulative confirm-shaming dark pattern is based on provoking guilt or fear of missing out. Let’s say the user wants to leave the page or decline a premium offer. Confirm-shaming design (or copy) asks the user if are they sure. This UX pattern tries to make the user feel like they lose something if they decline the opportunity.

13. Interface interference

Mobile apps usually use this dark pattern to make users rate the product. The pop-up not related to the user’s current activity appears on the screen.

design focus miss direction
Interface interference

This dark pattern is often combined with nagging.

14. Nagging

The product frequently offers to take some action until the user gets tired of it and agrees. The pop-up appears so often that users will submit the pre-selected five stars automatically, just to get rid of interruption. Nagging is quite an annoying type of dark pattern and this is precisely why it works.  

15. Fake urgency or scarcity bias

fake urgency missing a great opportunity.
Fake urgency or scarcity bias

Highlighted in alarming red offer notifies that not many options are left and users should hurry up.

You have definitely seen this one. Retailers artificially create a sense of urgency and fear of missing a great opportunity. They show how many items are left in stock or implement countdowns to the final day of sales. You don’t know if the information they reveal is true or if it is just a manipulation to make you buy right now.

The deceptive design makes you spend more, steals your privacy, and even messes with your brain. This all might seem dark, indeed. The good news is that you already learned about the problems related to dark UX and now you can resist.

How to avoid dark patterns

Despite having over fifteen different types of dark UX you might have noticed that many dark patterns are similar. They are all based on very common human weaknesses, relying on confusion and manipulation. So you can use that to notice and resist deceptive practices.

And you can take action from any position.

how to avoid design traps?
How to avoid "evil" design traps?

The future of technology and design is in our hands and we can make it better together!

To have firm ground under our feet, let’s quickly sum up what we have talked about.

Key takeaways

Dark UX is a design that misleads users to get profit for stakeholders. Dark UX patterns trick users to take unintended or even harmful actions.

  • We now know around fifteen dark UX patterns and counting. Some dark UX patterns are harmless and others are more dangerous.
  • Deceptive design is based on cognitive psychology. Companies that use dark UX patterns to achieve a certain metric lose long-term.
  • Users are often not aware that companies manipulate their behaviour through design. The line between persuasive design and manipulative design is quite thin.
  • We should cultivate ethical, human-centred design to have a safe technological future.

At Tenscope we create persuasive, not deceptive designs. Products we designed prove that real value and transparent UX always win. And users appreciate it. If you are looking fora reliable design partner, Tenscope is there for you. Book a demo.

table of contents
tenscope linkedintenscope xtenscope whatsup share buttontenscope facebook
SaaS Onboarding:
The definitive guide

Navigating the complexities of user onboarding is a pivotal challenge for every SaaS founder. Our latest eBook is your roadmap to mastering this essential process.

Get the book

Add designers to your team in hours, not weeks.

Discover the impact of world-class design with our 7-day free trial.

Get Started