Throwing Shade on Dark Patterns

concrete pillars

You've encountered them before, even if you didn't notice it. Websites steering you into pathways and decisions you might not have made otherwise.

What's a "Dark Pattern"? According to Wikipedia it's "a user interface (UI) that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills."

These tricks encourage users to carry out unexpected actions like clicking on fake buttons or unwittingly making extra payments. 

What are the types of a Dark Pattern?

  • You're trying to buy something online, but somewhere along the line the website sneaks something into your cart either by some sort of a checkbox or opt-out choice on a previous page.
  • A free trial has ended however your credit card starts getting charged without notice. Worse, the website makes it extra difficult to cancel the plan or membership.
  • Ads (or buttons) that look like a site's navigation, to trick you into clicking them. Not necessarily the website, but they allow ads on their site that look like site's buttons.

It's getting to the point where U.S. senators are getting involved. Last month, Mark Warner (D) and Deb Fischer (R) introduced a bill to ban companies like Twitter and Facebook from tricking users into giving up their personal information.

These bills are congress' attempt to contain the online industry, what with their recent privacy and data breaches, have had many many folks call for tougher regulations in the internet space. 

Are you doing these on your website?

Sneaky Questions

These are those "opt in" checkboxes that have convoluted wording that make it not immediately clear if you're signing up, or don't want to sign up, for certain email marketing. If you need to adhere to GDPR, you should already be aware of this one.

Adding extra items to your cart

You've seen these, especially on GoDaddy, or 1800flowers. The endless pre-checkout questions with various add-ons and up-sells. If you're not careful, you'll end up buying a lot more than you intended.

No Escape

The websites that make it difficult to downgrade or delete your account (more below). There is no clear cancel, unsubscribe or quit link from your profile. Worse, you have to call someone.

Privacy Zuckering

Yes, this is a thing. If you're not paying attention, there are many places where Facebook will let you post something to "everyone" vs. just your friends if you don't check the right options when posting. Perhaps assuming most folks don't want to broadcast everything to the world and make that the default?


These are typically those marketing popups you see with a (tiny) guilty-sounding opt-out at the bottom like "No, I don't want to save money", and no clear (X) button to close the popup.

A B2B Example

Now, this isn't exactly a Dark Pattern, but what Quickbooks Online has done recently is pretty close, if not frustrating. For many folks in different verticals, they're not always fans of Quickbooks to begin with, it's more of a necessary evil. 

I'm a fan of continuous improvement, but these tactics for most users, are a bit tone deaf.

Somehow, I was opted into a free trial / upgrade of QBO's Advanced plan, with no escape. My (paid) web app was cluttered with upgrade buttons, with no way to remove or dismiss them.

When I went into my account profile, they have it look like I'm on the Advanced plan. I can't downgrade to make it go away. (see above, "Please call"...)

If I try to downgrade, I'm prompted to call someone. Frustrated, I reached out via Twitter. 

@QBCares Is there a way I can turn off my "free" Advanced preview? The popups and reminders are getting annoying, since I didn't ask for a free trial? I tried downgrading, but it won't and says I have to call?

— Eric Gockel (@egockel)

They replied with: 

There’s a way that you can opt out of the trial without having to call in. The steps are listed in this article: This will take you out of the trial and back to your normal QuickBooks. Let me know if I can help with anything else. ^RS

— QuickBooksCares (@QBCares)

A month later I received this email:


So... buried in a FAQ, on a website called (Intuit?) there's a link to where you can downgrade back to your original plan (in my case, Plus) to make all the Advanced promo nonsense go away.

Naturally, I replied:

Where exactly does someone navigate to via the QBO site? It would make sense to have a link to it on the Account and Settings screen?

— Eric Gockel (@egockel) April 18, 2019

No reply to that one...

Impossible to switch to an annual plan online

A user on any plan other than Advanced can't switch to annual billing online with this current promotion in place. That is something they should be pushing most of all, which they have now made impossible. Everyone will need to call in to switch to annual billing, lest they're savvy enough to ask WTF via Twitter.

Help us make it better!

Do you have any examples of similar tactics that frustrate you? Call them out in the comments below.






Filed under UX
Tagged Dark Patterns

About the Author

Eric Gockel

Eric Gockel