Dark Patterns: Why Dark Arts Don’t Work in UX Design

If you have an iPhone, you may not be aware that by default it tracks your actions in order to target ads to you. This isn’t exactly something Apple shouts about. Now you might be wondering, So what, can’t I just turn it off? You can, but it’s not exactly straightforward. In fact, it’s downright confusing:

Go to Settings > General > About > Scroll ALL THE WAY to the bottom of the screen > Go to Advertising > Find a switch called Limit Ad Tracking.


“Oh look it’s already off!” you say. No, you have to turn it ON to limit ad tracking. (Sneaky, sneaky.) This is called a Dark Pattern – an interface designed to trick people.

Where to spot them

From the marketing emails you didn’t realize you opted into because of confusing language, to the monthly recurring billing on a website subscription stated in microscopic light grey text, there are many creative ways that companies use to get you to consent to things you don’t actually want. You can learn more about how they work and where to find them at darkpatterns.org

Is it ever acceptable?

There is often discussion, usually at emerging businesses, about whether misleading interfaces and UX design are ever acceptable in order to boost results. Some people even cite examples of larger companies doing it as an excuse. “But big companies use these techniques all the time, and they’re doing great. It must be worth it.” Correlation is not causation. I’d argue that larger companies haven’t seen success as a result of these tactics, rather they can get away with trying such tactics because they are already successful. When a company has a few hundred million customers who rely on their products and UX design daily, they feel like they can experiment with misleading tactics to increase revenue. If anyone with a customer base smaller than “practically everyone” tries this it is frequently disastrous.

Greed is expensive

Take the example of one of the classic dark patterns – the secret email opt-in. If you sneakily add a pre-checked “send me emails” checkbox into your webstore checkout you will get more short term subscribers to your email list. Sounds great! This will quickly turn sour, though, when many of those users get annoyed by the emails they’re getting and unsubscribe, or worse, report you for spam. Many will lose trust and go to a competitor who treats them better. No matter what your business, chances are good the competition is ready and eager to offer your customer a better experience.

The truth is, if you are trying to build a brand, trust and loyalty are the most important things you should be trying to inspire in your audience, including through UX design. It’s much easier to lose that than it is to create it, so treat it like a precious commodity and it will pay off.