What Are Dark Patterns? 6 Ways Your Brain Is Being Tricked
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Have you ever tried to cancel a subscription and found yourself waiting to chat with a customer service representative instead? Or check out from a shopping site and realize there are three items in your cart that you never added?

Then you may have become the victim of a dark pattern. Keep reading to find out what dark patterns are and how to spot them.

What Is a Dark Pattern?

dark pattern is a type of user interface that is designed to trick you into doing something you didn’t intend to do. Alternatively, it can also stop you from something you want to do. To do this, UI designers hide details, force you to go through hoops to perform an action or make unrelated items look alike.

The first step to protecting yourself from dark patterns is recognizing them when you see them. Here are six of the most common dark patterns you find online.

1. Unsubscribe Here

Email Unsubscribe List

You can find the most common examples of dark patterns right in your inbox. Nearly every website you sign up for adds you to a subscription list where you regularly receive emails. It only takes a few mailing lists to completely clutter your inbox with newsletters, digital coupons, and limited-time offers.

These emails are often on the verge of being spam.

If you try unsubscribing to one of these lists, you’ll find that it’s much harder than it should be. The link to unsubscribe is normally at the very bottom of the email, wedged between the address and the trademark. The text is in small font size and uses the same font as the rest of the email.

Some companies take it a step further and deliberately change the font color to a dim grey so you can’t read it until you highlight it with your mouse. Unsubscribing from these emails can be a headache, but there is a way to easily unsubscribe from online newsletters The Hassle-Free Way to Unsubscribe From Any Email Newsletter The Hassle-Free Way to Unsubscribe From Any Email Newsletter Sick of getting automated emails you never read? Here's a free service that makes unsubscribing from them a snap. Read More .

2. We’ll Miss You

Permanently Close Account Spotify

While companies don’t make it easy to unsubscribe from their emails, most of them at least have a small link that lets you unsubscribe. The same can’t be said for many other websites. This is especially true for recurring paid services or apps that regularly make money on advertising and selling products to you.

Unsubscribing from a service or deactivating your account can be a difficult process. Companies will actively try to discourage you from leaving. One way they do this is by burying the “close account” beneath a series of pages.

If you want to delete your Spotify account How to Delete Your Spotify Account How to Delete Your Spotify Account With all kinds of alternatives cropping up, you may be second-guessing whether Spotify is right for you. If you've had enough, you might want to delete your account. Read More , you need to navigate to the help section and they ask you a series of questions before admitting you to the actual deletion screen.

Another way websites do this is by forcing you to talk to a customer service representative, either through a phone call or a live chat.

Many sites offer special deals to dissuade you from unsubscribing. For example, when you cancel your Audible account, they may offer you a discount or an alternative payment scheme. Even something as simple as placing “we’ll miss you” before you leave the service is an attempt to guilt you into staying.

3. 14 Days Later

Automatic Renewals Free Trials

Let’s say that you’ve been looking for a great productivity tool for you and your team. After some searching, you spot what looks to be the ideal platform for your project. However, the price is a little steep. It’ll cost you and every person in your team $30 a month each.

You’re not sure if it’s worth it, but a 14-day free trial is offered. You feel that it’s a good opportunity to try out the software. If it’s not for you, you’ll just cancel the subscription.

Fast-forward 14 days, and your credit card is charged $30 without any indication that your trial was about to expire. While you technically agreed to automatically renew the subscription, a heads-up would’ve been nice. You just fell into forced continuity.

The vast majority of free trials for paid services, such as software licenses or streaming platforms, require you to put in your credit card information.

While this seems fairly innocuous at first, companies go to great lengths to make sure that you never remember that your credit card is about to get charged until it’s too late. Often, that means not generating a notification even when you’re literally inside their app or on their website.

4. Dirt and Dust

What Are Dark Patterns? 6 Ways Your Brain Is Being Tricked Dark Patterns Fake Dirt and Dust 1 e1550582445163
Image Credit: superpokeman127/Reddit

With the advent of touch displays, advertisers have found creative ways to trick people into engaging with their ads.

One of the most egregious examples of this comes from a user named u/superpokeman127 on the Mildly Infuriating sub-reddit. They posted an ad from a Chinese shoe manufacturer with a curved line that looks like a strand of hair. This image was originally posted as an Instagram story.

Because swiping up on a story takes you to a link, many unsuspecting users likely swiped on the ad by accident in order to get the “hair” out of the way.

Shortly after the post went viral, Instagram banned the account and deleted the post. However, there are many more examples of this online. There are fake specks of dust, imitations of notification sounds, and ads that look like download buttons.

5. Buy Now Buttons

Dark Patterns Interstitial Skip Ads

If you frequently play free mobile games, you know that they are often filled with prompts to buy gems, items, or power-ups. These purchases are known as microtransactions. Some games have ads that play in between levels or rounds. One of the most common microtransactions is paying to remove all the ads from a game.

In the example above, you can see that the buttons to continue an existing game are much larger than the close button on the top right. Continuing the game involves either viewing an ad or buying in-game gems.

Many games and apps design their interface in such a way that you will reflexively click the larger, more prominent button, which often leads to a microtransaction purchase.

6. Checkboxes and Sneak Baskets

Automatic Checkboxes Godaddy Purchases

You can find a similar pattern in online shopping. Checkboxes for additional purchases are often ticked by default when checking out a purchase. This means that in order to get out of the add-on, you have to untick the box or select the “no, thanks” option.

The even more egregious version of this is random items being added to your cart at online retailers. This practice is called a sneak basket. Retailers hope that you won’t notice and just complete your purchase with the extra item included.

Protecting Yourself From Dark Patterns

The dark patterns you can find online aren’t limited to the ones on this list. Designers and developers constantly find new ways to push you into certain types of behavior. Therefore, you need to always stay attentive and read things thoroughly before you click.

To recap, here are the the dark patterns that you should watch out for:

  • “Unsubscribe Here” links
  • Difficult account deletion processes
  • Free trials with forced continuity
  • Fake dirt and dust on ads
  • Prominent “Buy Now” buttons
  • Ticked checkboxes and sneak baskets

If this article has inspired you to finally stop companies from flooding your inbox, you should check out our guide on how to easily stop spam from your email How to Stop Spam Emails in Gmail How to Stop Spam Emails in Gmail Getting too many spam emails? These clever Gmail tips will help you block unwanted spam emails from clogging up your Gmail inbox. Read More .

Explore more about: Dark Patterns, Online Privacy.

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  1. dragonmouth
    February 21, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    "1. Unsubscribe Here"
    If I can't unsubscribe easily, I set up a filter to either designate these emails as SPAM or to automatically send them to TRASH before they get into my Inbox.

    "2. We’ll Miss You"
    Deal with it! I'm gone, whether you like it or not.
    I remember what a hassle unsubscribing from AOL was. I told the "customer service rep" that I'm gone, hung up the phone and then deleted all the AOL software and AOL registry keys.

    "3. 14 Days Later"
    CAVEAT EMPTOR! You have nobody to blame but yourself. Why passively rely on a product vendor to notify you?! It is incumbent on YOU to keep track of the time, especially if you want to discontinue the product.

    If the conditions of the free trail were that at the end of it you were on the hook for a 10 year contract costing $100k per year, I'm sure you would keep a very close watch on the time.

    "4. Dirt and Dust"
    Ask yourself why you are seeing hair or dust on this one particular site but not on others, or when using a word processor.

    "you need to always stay attentive and read things thoroughly before you click"
    And THAT is the most important fact to remember. DON'T be clicking mindlessly. Be aware of what you are doing and of what is on the screen.

  2. logan
    February 21, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    this is why I usually use a "no_spam"@mydomain.us email address for new things. If they end up legit, I migrate them to a more appropriate email address... if not, they remain in the no_spam blackhole.

    • Vann Vicente
      February 22, 2019 at 5:49 am

      This is a good idea! It'll make one's primary e-mail address much more manageable.