• Emily Malone

Dark patterns: a guide to evil web designs

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

You’ve probably come across plenty of websites with bad design, and in many of these cases it’s just schoolboy errors that come with lazy creation. That kind of bad design is called a ‘UI anti-pattern’.

This is not what a Dark Pattern is.

A rather sinister-sounding term coined by London-based independent UX designer Harry Brignull, Dark Patterns are sneaky, carefully thought-out UI confusions. It sounds like something you’d expect to see on Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’, and to be honest, that wouldn’t surprise me.

These Dark Patterns are intricately crafted UI’s that are built on a solid understanding of human psychology in order to misdirect and confuse the user into making decisions. The user will accidentally choose to do something they wouldn’t usually do, such as buying insurance with their online purchase, or accidentally signing up to recurring bills.

They’re dirty tricks that are played out simply to increase a company’s conversion rates, and it’s really not okay.

Number one: The opt-in, opt-out dance of nightmares

To be an organ donor there are opt-in countries (Denmark, Netherlands, UK, Germany) and opt-out countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Sweden). Effective consent percentage is statistically and significantly bigger (almost 100%) in opt-out countries.


The idea is that because the ‘opt out’ countries are automatically registered donors, a lot of them are too lazy to change their option, or they just forget to.

This thinking has been applied to loads of brands’ websites worldwide.

One example would be Technology Company, Comet. These guys sneakily add a £30 iPad case into your basket when you go to buy an iPad. It just appears automatically.

These kinds of design patterns focus on people who simply won’t notice, or who notice after completing the purchase but are too busy or lazy to do anything about it.

Another example is the appropriately named ‘opt-out dance’. For this kind of Dark Pattern, you have to tick and skip a lot of boxes to opt out of offers, and if you make a clumsy misstep, or read it incorrectly (sometimes they’re trick questions), you will end up accidentally opting into something.

This is the design that delivers the best conversion rate but sadly, it’s just based around trickery.

However, the evil genius award goes to…

Ryanair, oh, Ryanair.

So you’ve picked your flight, you’re eager to fill in all the correct questions and you come to a box that says ‘Passenger Details’. We all know that when we land on pages like this, we scan read, and Ryanair takes advantage of that fact.

The section title ‘passenger details’ is actually the upsell area. The innocuous question ‘please select country of residence’ actually means that you select travel insurance.

What? How?

Well, among the different countries you can choose, there is a ‘No travel insurance required’ option. Oh, and if that isn’t infuriating enough, the option is sandwiched between Latvia and Lithuania for some reason, which isn’t even alphabetical.

The user basically ends up buying stuff they didn’t need to.


How sneaky is that?! It’s the equivalent of a supermarket manager putting a chicken in your trolley when you’ve nipped off to get some milk. And you’re vegetarian.

Number two: The Chinese finger trap (easy in, hard out)

Ever been to a website, subscribed to something, and subsequently realised that although it was amazingly easy to sign-up, it’s nearly impossible to cancel?

A great example of this is LA Fitness

These guys make it easy to sign up online with just a few clicks, but to cancel your membership you can’t do it online. Instead, you have to post a written notice of your cancellation request to a specific address.

Another example is the time difference between buying flights and canceling them on Orbitz flights:

Easy in: 3 steps, takes 5 minutes. (search flights, select tickets, make purchase.)

Hard out: 5 steps, up to 2 days. (24hr call number, make call, get referred to a different company (working hours only), call insurance company, cancel insurance).

But how can people get away with this irritating stuff?

Well, ‘black hat’ SEO is detected easily by Google, and consequently penalised. ‘Black hat’ UIs can’t be detected in this way, which is why they’re still happening.


There are so many more tricks that companies play on users to up their conversion rates, for more examples head to darkpatterns.org.

The guys at Darkpatterns are calling for a code of ethics and public humiliation of these websites on their own site. The idea is to name and shame, and hopefully it’ll embarrass them into giving up.

You should evaluate what you really want from your customers. Do you just want them to just use your service once and be annoyed after, or do you want them to come back again and again?

Personally, I think the value of usage alone is an awful business plan. A good brand is liked. A great brand is loved and respected, and in turn they respect their customers. Using dark patterns will never help a brand’s growth.

Have you battled with any sneaky Dark Patterns on your web journeys? Let’s have a natter in the comments section below.