Don’t Get Tricked! Beware of Deceptive User Interfaces

Kimberly Burghart March 27, 2015

In this post, Joe Zeoli, Senior Website and Graphics Developer at Miles Technologies, discusses how designers use dark user interface (UI) patterns to manipulate the behavior of website users.

User Interface (UI) designers use concepts of human psychology to decide how to provide the best experience possible for their end users. They employ the 10 main usability heuristics to make sure the system developed is as usable as possible.

As with most things designed with good intentions, there are always people who will twist a tactic to their own advantage. A Dark UI Pattern is a design that utilizes the same psychology concepts—like user perception (see chart below)—but instead creates an interface designed specifically to trick users into doing things that support a business model or agenda.

Dark patterns are not just seen in UI, and to better explain this concept, let’s take a look at this example of a chart detailing organ donor consent percentage of some prominent European nations. If you take a look at the graph below, you’ll see a startling statistic that reveals a huge disparity in organ donation:

What kind of conclusions could you draw from this chart? If I said, “people in Denmark, The Netherlands, the UK and Germany are culturally more opposed to organ donation,” it would be hard to argue with me based on these results, right?

If I did that, this would be a dark pattern-like trick. I would be presenting the chart without proper context. Generally, people make decisions based only on what they see in front of them because that’s the only information available at the moment. If we take a step back for a second and ask where this data is coming from, we can make a much different conclusion. This type of deception can be found throughout the web.

Here is the important context for the chart: the four countries on the left are explicit consent organ donation countries (meaning individuals can only be considered organ donors if they “opt-in” to the program) and the seven on the right are presumed consent countries (meaning everyone is considered an organ donor unless they explicitly “opt-out”).

Let’s take a look at some specific elements of user behavior that UI designers use dark patterns to take advantage of:

We don’t read pages, we scan them

The average user scans pages for the important bits and never fully reads the page. A good UI designer knows this and lays out content to make it easily digestible to the average scanner. User scanning habits are something that can be easily taken advantage of by hiding important information within paragraphs of text. This way, users will proceed without a full understanding of what they are getting involved in.

Here’s a disconcerting example of this where you can proceed without reading the terms and conditions. But let’s give me some benefit of doubt, and say I am going to at least decide to scroll down (The below image was taken from my bank’s signup process. The name and address of the bank have been removed):

In the highlighted Section 9 it states that this company intends to SELL your information. But that’s okay since they provided this small and buried checkbox in order to opt out, right?

Users get confused easily

A very common way sites try to sneak something by users is tricking them with confusing wording. If you’ve ever thought you were diligent in opting out of emails from an application, but ended up getting them anyway, you have probably fallen victim to this. Which one of the below do you think performs better on a A/B test (company name is removed)?

If you guessed B, you’re correct. A is the most honest choice as we expect a check to signify that we are interested in something. B uses a double negative to trick us into not clicking the checkbox if we do not read the statement carefully. Option C has the same type of language, but auto selects the checkbox.

Users are lazy

It is common knowledge that the more form fields that are present, the smaller the conversion rate is. Designers and marketers use this information to make streamlined forms for a painless user experience.

Once again, designers creating dark UI patterns can flip this idea around. Let’s say I want to unsubscribe from annoying emails. I click the unsubscribe link in the email, and I am brought to this page with a bunch of form fields before I can really unsubscribe (company name removed):

Every field must be filled out in order to unsubscribe. It’s a very painful experience by design, and the company hopes the user will just give up and stay subscribed. This type of dark pattern design is known as the “Roach Motel:” easy to get into, but difficult to leave.

Knock it off!

While at first companies may think that these tricks will get them more customers, in reality, they just annoying potential clients which can ultimately backfire. Would you be interested in working with a business that is intentionally trying to trick you? There are a ton of other dark UI patterns out there that you should look out for when signing up for a service to make sure the company is looking out for your best interest. For more examples of dark UI patterns in action, check out

Have you ever been tricked our almost tricked by a dark UI pattern design? What are some prominent examples you’ve encountered? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Joe Zeoli can be found on Twitter @JoeZeoli. Drop him a line anytime!

If you have any questions about whether you are inadvertently using dark UI patterns or would like information about real, proven lead generation strategies, contact us today to speak with a Digital Marketing expert.


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