Bringing Dark Patterns to Light

Transcript of the speech I gave at the Federal Trade Commission’s Dark Patterns workshop on April 29, 2021

Harry Brignull
4 min readJun 6, 2021
Image credit: Andrej Lišakov

The first thing people normally ask is “What is a Dark Pattern?” so I might as well start there.

A Dark Pattern is a manipulative or deceptive trick in software that gets users to complete an action that they would not otherwise have done, if they had understood it or had a choice at the time. For example if you have a button that functions as a “Yes” when clicked, but through the use of placement, colour and trick wording, it appears to say “No”, then many users are going to be caught out.

If you’re wondering where the term came from, it is based on the idea of “design pattern”. A design pattern is a common, re-usable solution to a problem. There’s also something called an anti-pattern — which is a common mistake.

In 2010, I realised there was another type of pattern that was rooted in purposeful deception and manipulation. So I gave it the term Dark Pattern. It’s meant to communicate the unscrupulous nature, and also the fact that it can be shadowy and hard to pin down.

So people can end up purchasing things, sharing things, or agreeing to legal terms without intending to do so. People also can try but fail to do the thing that they set out to do, because it’s been designed to be difficult. For example trying to cancel a premium subscription, when you’re forced to call a phone line, during working hours, to then have a rep try to talk you out of it for ten minutes before you’re finally allowed to leave.

Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler refers to this as sludge — a high friction, viscous experience that by its nature causes people to become fatigued and give up.

Another type of trick involves persuading people to do things, by taking advantage of cognitive biases. For example, if a website tells you that other people are currently looking at the same item as you, that’s tapping into your social proof bias. If it tells you that the item is almost sold out, that taps into your scarcity bias. If it shows you a discount, that taps into something called anchoring. Of course, if those things are all true, that’s perfectly honest marketing. In fact it’s actually useful for a shopper to know this information. But if any of those things are lies, then it’s a Dark Pattern.

Of course the problem is that language can be very ambiguous. If a retailer says they have low stock, but they have a trailer outside that hasn’t yet been unloaded, are they telling the truth? What about if the trailer hasn’t yet arrived, but is about to pull into the parking lot? Or if it already has been unloaded, but the store manager hasn’t yet signed the receipt? The definitions matter, and human language is very well suited to vague definitions of things.

The recipe for Dark Patterns involves a combination of Applied Psychology, AB Testing and User Interface Design. These disciplines have been evolving rapidly. If we look back, say 20 years — this sort of knowledge was only known by a privileged few. It’s now commonplace. The genie is out of the bottle. We can’t put it back in.

When I first worked on Dark Patterns in 2010, I was quite naive. I thought that they could be eradicated by shaming the companies that used them, and by encouraging designers to use a code of ethics.

The fact that we’re here today means that approach didn’t work.

One of the reasons is that Dark Patterns are low-effort and high impact. They generate profit and they are straightforward to make.

I’ll give you a specific example. There’s a research paper called “Price Salience and Product Choice” by Blake et al, 2020.

In this paper, some researchers worked with a ticketing website, to look at the effect of hidden fees vs upfront fees. The experiment included several million users. It’s probably the largest test of dark patterns that’s ever been published.

The users who weren’t shown the ticket fees upfront spent about 21% more money and were 14% more likely to complete a purchase.

That is a huge impact. Imagine if you ran a business, and you could press a button to get your customers to spend 21% more.

Imagine that you knew you might get fined, but the fine would be smaller than the money you’d make by pressing that button.It’s a no brainer. Of course you would press it.

This is the reason why Dark Patterns exist. They’re effective and they’re profitable.

The reason we’re here today of course is that they also lead to outcomes of harm. Consumers end up spending money, sharing things or being tied into agreements without intending to do so.

To finish up I’m going to tell you an old story. Perhaps you’ve heard it before. The old myth of the King’s Shilling from the 18th century.

The act of touching the coin was taken as a binding agreement to join the English Royal Navy, with no turning back. As the story goes, recruiters would put the coin into a sailor’s beer tankard without them knowing. And when it touched their lips, they would then be press ganged and forced into the Navy.

Websites and apps should not be able to press-gang consumers.

On that thought, I’ll hand over to Arunesh Mathur who will show you examples of the different types of Dark Pattern that are used in the world today.

Continue reading: Workshop Transcript / Workshop Video