In the spirit of Halloween I’ve decided to focus attention onto something I find chilling and spine-tingling… dark patterns. Sounds ominous and sinister, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s because they are. Dark patterns are user interfaces that are designed to trick users into doing things, such as signing up for recurring bills or receiving marketing material, and are what I consider to be villains of the UX world.

Why villains? Because dark patterns aren’t designs that were poorly done by mistake – the creators really are out to get you for their own gain. As a customer, I find them the bane of my existence and as a UX researcher, it pains me to see them – I don’t see how there could ever be a business need of making your customers unnecessarily suffer.

Yet, it happens all the time and the scary thing is, you, as a customer, may not even realise you’re falling victim to a dark pattern. is a wonderful website, created by wonderful people, with the wonderful goal of naming and shaming companies who have incorporated dark pattern tactics into their interfaces.

The website contains a library of examples and gives a comprehensive breakdown of all the various types of dark patterns; whether you use them as a source of good (tips on how to avoid dark patterns) or bad (“let’s trip up these suckers <MUAHAHAHA>”) is up to you…

Here are some examples of those I often experience:

1. The dark pattern: Forced Continuity

This is when a user is required to enter credit card details in order to sign up for a free trial on a website. When the trial comes to an end, they automatically start getting billed for the paid service. This tactic is so commonplace that people now think it’s normal and accept it as a regular sales tactic.

Why it’s dark

Companies often don’t give reminders that the trial period is about to end and rely on humans to naturally think (i.e. most people will forget to cancel and will pay a couple of months’ worth of fees before noticing any charges). OR they will make it difficult to cancel the renewal, such as by hiding any kind of cancel function or forcing users to call in to speak to an agent.

How to make it honest

Give users an adequate reminder when their trial period is about to end and/or make the trial account easy to cancel. I had a year-long contract with BT internet services and nearing the end of my contract, I was informed that my discounted pricing was about to end and was offered a chance to renew before going monthly. I really appreciated the transparency and the opportunity to make my own decision rather than have a decision imposed on me.

I’ve just signed up for a 3-month Tastecard trial. I had to give them my credit card details and have been told that I “can cancel at any time!” Normally I don’t like to do these kinds of trials but the offer was just too irresistible…

I have clearly marked in my calendar the date I’ll need to cancel my subscription before they start charging me the pricy regular payments. I’m interested to see what’s going to happen at the end of my 3 months – are they a dark or honest company? I will keep you posted!

2. The dark pattern: Roach Motel

This one is as disgusting as it sounds. Roach Motels are situations where companies make it very easy to sign up for something and extremely difficult to leave. Reasons companies may implement this is to reduce churn and keep key figures high (e.g. you may have 10k email subscribers but how many of these subscribers actually want to receive content from you?).

Why it’s dark

These companies are basically trapping you into staying with them for as long as possible. Holding you against your own free will. Skype is a prime example of a Roach Motel. Have you ever tried to cancel/deactivate your account with them? It’s impossible. The only way to do so is to contact Skype Customer Service and according to the community forum, it will then take up to 2 weeks to remove your name from the directory. But even after that, you will still appear in people’s contact list unless they decide to remove you.  

How to make it honest

Allow users to cancel and unsubscribe easily. If signing up for a service was as easy as checking a box then cancelling should be just as easy. If that’s not possible then allow me to remind you of the power of transparency. If unsubscribing really isn’t a simple process, then let users know before they sign up what the cancellation process will be like.

3. The dark pattern: Hidden Costs

Hidden costs are when surprise fees pop up at the last step of the ecommerce checkout process e.g. delivery charges, service charges etc.

Why it’s dark

Well, unless you like paying unexpected fees I think you can figure out why this is a dark pattern.

Take a look here. I’ve just sorted out my New Year’s Eve plans, but not without a bit of user frustration.

1. Ooh, £13 tickets, and I’m even told it includes a £2 fee! How transparent…

2. Let’s proceed and book 2 tickets. Alright, £26, looks good to me.

3. What the bloody $*%&! Delivery charges for buying an online ticket? And £2 for an eTicket!? So much for transparency.

How to make it honest

This isn’t rocket science. Delivery prices could be stated upfront. Again, it’s all about transparency and letting users know what to expect.

So, to end off, there are ethical ways of getting people to continue to be your customers and there are deceitful ways of retaining customers or having them spend more money with you.

TRICK OR TREAT? What do you want your customers to experience?