Last updated Sep 14 2020

⚡ Dark patterns

Why dark patterns are bad for business - Paul Boag

UX and Service Design consultant Paul Boag explains the long-lasting and damaging effect dark patterns can have on a brand's reputation.

What Paul covers:

  • A definition of dark patterns
  • Practical insight into a customer's perception of being manipulated
  • Why dark patterns work—and 3 reasons they should be avoided anyway

Click below to read the transcript.


Did you know that you could be damaging the long-term health of your online conversions through the use of dark patterns? In the next few minutes I'm gonna share with you three reasons why you need to avoid them. Dark patterns are those user interface elements that have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things that they might not otherwise do. Like for example, adding insurance to an order, or signing up for re-occurring billing. By way of an example check out this design I've mocked up for you. Notice how there are two buttons for checkout. Notice that one is more prominent and green and automatically adds insurance, and how the directional arrow seems to indicate that's how you progress. If you not paying the page your full attention, which most users are not. It would be easy to miss that you've been tricked into permitting the addition of insurance. Despite being widely condemned as unethical, dark patterns persist and are if anything growing in popularity. And that's because in fact they do work. So, why should you avoid them? Well there's a presumption that if these techniques work, then people are unaware that a site is manipulating them. In fact that's not always the case. In usability testing I've observed that people are at least at some level aware that they are being manipulated. Take for example a usability test session I ran with a man called David. He was asked to book a hotel and chose to do so with While booking his room he commented about the site, "I hate all of this manipulative", well I won't use the word he used, "trying to convince me that the room is about to sell out." He was well aware that the site was manipulating him. When I asked him why he chose to use the site anyway, he cited ease of use and claimed that he just ignored that other stuff. Of course in truth, the manipulative stuff he saw on the site was influencing his decision making on a subconscious level, despite what he thought. However it did leave him with a negative impression of the site, and a feeling that was only overcome, by the fact that it was easy to use. What this shows us is that consumers are a lot savvier than we think they are. Not only that, but they're also incredibly cynical. And they've come to expect companies to manipulate them. Also with so much choice, why would you return to a website that's been manipulating you? cost of a customer being aware that a company is manipulated them, is much higher than losing one customer. In today's world one disgruntled customer could undermine an entire brand. The average consumer has over 330 friends on Facebook alone. That is immediately a lot of people they can share their unhappiness with. Second consumers can write reviews and ratings, which will reach an even broader audience. And many rely on those reviews when considering what to purchase. And then third, the web connects those disgruntled customers together, and enables them to amplify their message. For example a single post by a blogger called Jeff Jarvis united consumers who were unhappy with Dell's customer service. And according to some reports the resulting PR nightmare knocked a third off of Dell's share price. In essence buyer's remorse is damaging your brand reputation. And buyer's remorse refers to that sense of regret that somebody has when they make a purchase that they wish they hadn't. A feeling that is going to be all the more likely if you manipulated them into making that purchase. Your dark patterns might improve conversion, however it will undermine the effectiveness of your marketing. It will lead to more support calls, and an increase in the number of returns you see. So yes, dark patterns work, but there are more effective approaches you can take to improve conversion. Techniques built around reducing cognitive load by simplifying your site, overcoming analysis paralysis and better matching people's mental models. As I explain in the courses I run on conversion optimization there is just no need to resort to these kinds of manipulatives techniques.