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Dark Patterns: The Spooky Side of UX 👻

By Steven Shyne

The worlds of user experience research, strategy, and design are typically seen as these customer-centric, highly empathetic realms that are held up by companies that hold their customers’ insights sacred and pure. Well, I’m afraid to say that’s not the case. And no, we don’t just mean bad UX – which is out there in spades. We mean there is a spooky – if not sinister – side to UX called Dark Patterns (insert ghost howling noise here).

We’ve hopefully all experienced good UX: sites, apps, or other digital experiences that are easy to use and intuitive to navigate; you practically flow effortlessly through them and they can – dare we say – delight you.

Then of course there is poor UX: sites that are out-dated, overcrowded, quirky, confusing, clunky, broken, annoying, or all of the above. They are frustrating to use, offer little if any guidance, and are typically met with a curse word or two. You’ve likely experienced these gems on a municipality or government website. 

But then… enter Dark Patterns. Definitions may vary, but this is when the user experience is intentionally designed to trick, obfuscate, or coerce the end user into behaviors they wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. Examples could be

  • Unintentional purchases, upsells or add-ons
  • Unknown opt-ins or acceptances of certain terms of use
  • Overly-difficult to stop or cancel service

Dark Pattern Example: Sneaky Upsell

Our first example is from value-focused air travel provider Ryanair. When booking a flight on Ryanair users are given a seating map through which they can select their own seat – seems reasonable so far. However, it’s sneakily disclaimed that if the user does select a seat they will be charged an extra fee, without any secondary warning or caution. ::shakes fist::

Budget airlines and low-cost disruptors in other industries tend to use dark patterns as a means of recouping slashed margins. It’s a gamble to nickel and dime customers, balancing the annoyance of micro transactions versus the health of the bottom line.

Dark Pattern Example: Difficulty Cancelling

Next we have Equinox the high-end “lifestyle” gym. They make it exceedingly easy to join online – just a few clicks and a couple hundred bucks a month later and you’re on your way. 

But try cancelling your membership and you’re in for a world of red tape: there are cancellation limitation windows, prorated fees, and stipulate that cancellations can only be done in-person at a gym, on the phone, or certified mail. If it’s just so easy to sign up online, why does it have to be so hard to back out? It’s not technology, it’s a dark pattern.

So what does this all mean? 

For marketers:

  • Create Value, Not Victims. Any short-term gains from using dark patterns will likely be lost with brand erosion and inevitable customer churn.
  • Advocate for the End User. Imagine yourself (or your loved ones) in the shoes of your end users – how would you want to be treated? Design for that.
  • Let’s Do Better. Sometimes “Marketer” and “Moral Compass” aren’t in the same category – let’s set an example and change the mindset. 

For consumers:

  • Be Cautious, Be Critical. Watch for sneaky tricks and bait-and-switch tactics from companies of all sizes and verticals – not just budget airlines and high-end gyms.
  • Vote With Your Dollars. If you find a site or brand that uses dark patterns, go shop somewhere else.
  • Spread the Word. Now that you know more about dark patterns, tell every boy and ghoul, every daddy and mummy you know. Share this article or visit to learn more.


If you’re a bit spooked by dark patterns and want to connect send a message to and we can gab on plenty of other scary stories.