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The Dark Side of Design: An Ethical Designers Guide to Dark Patterns

Ever been infuriated that you can subscribe with a button, but have to answer a million questions over the phone to unsubscribe? Yeah me too. That’s why I decided to create a guide to dark patterns and ethical design, so that any new designer has a bunch of better alternatives to achieve their wildest design dreams, in an ethical way.


Dark Pattern Design Card Deck

Innovation Time

Our Innovation Time initiative dedicates 15% of our team’s time to work on personal projects they’re passionate about; this weeks challenge was to tackle unethical design practices. Designer James Seddon picks up a project he started at university to create a ‘dark pattern card deck’; a game centred around recognising dark patterns and understanding a more ethical approach to design.

What are dark patterns & why do I find them so annoying?

Dark patterns in design include clever tricks and tactics which aim to mislead and deceive users into taking actions they didn’t mean or want to. From hiding options in purposefully unintuitive places to designing images with fake smudges to trick users into tapping on ads.

The problem is that these kind of UX and UI decisions are very old-school, black hat and unethical. They were invented by people who only cared about making conversions, with no thought to the impact it would have on their users in the long run.

I wanted to spend my week of Innovation Time creating an engaging and informative way for designers to recognise dark patterns from a glimpse of an eye.

An ethical designers guide to dark patterns

You can always find documents on design philosophy postered around offices and workspaces; these cards offer an easy and more entertaining way to identify dark design patterns and gain other alternatives without spending hours of research and meetings trying to discover another solution.

My dark pattern cards project aims to do exactly that; arm designers with everything they need to recognise dark patterns and adopt a more ethical approach to design.

Whether the designer is learning the ropes or being pushed into using dark patterns by a client, they should all, at the very least, be aware of the issues they’ll cause and be equipped with a more human-centric, ethical approach to their work and designs.

Cards for Dark Patterns

1. Hidden costs

You present your user with additional unknown prices just before completing a purchase.

This dark pattern often involves extra niceties like gift wrapping and express delivery, look out for additional costs that users don’t know about.

2. Infinite scroll

You let your users be hooked into an endless loop of content.

Think about those weird click-bait articles you can find on Facebook, where you get lost and end up reading three or four different posts before reaching the bottom of the page.

Hidden Costs and Infinite Scroll Dark Patterns

3. Pull to refresh

You utilise a gambling technique to tease a surprise, making users want to see the next batch of content.

The obvious offender here is pretty much every social media channel out there that lets you update your feed with fresh content; it’s might seem like a light offence but does promote extremely addictive behaviour.

4. Trick questions

You use confusing and cryptic language to reduce the clarity of what the user is expecting to happen.

Look out for the tick boxes that give websites permission to use your data (especially email), as these will often be worded along the lines of ‘want us to send you occasional emails? Leave the box unticked’ which makes users do the exact opposite unless they read the full sentence.

Pull to Refresh and Trick Questions Dark Patterns

5. Sly upselling

As your user completes their purchase, you add additional items to their basket, making them believe they need those extras.

A less common dark pattern, but one which you can usually find adding things like accessories and insurance relevant to an item you have in your basket.

6. Hidden adverts

You create an advert to look the same as the content on the page, misleading the user into interacting with the advert.

This is a real issue while reading certain articles from unreliable sources; filling a page with ads that use the same font, alignment and colours as the page being read by the user.

Sly Upselling and Hidden Adverts Dark Patterns

7. Guilt tripping

You use words to make the user feel guilty about their personal decision.

This one’s a little more forgiving when used tastefully (like charity ads), but in the wrong hands, this dark pattern can be used for things like scamming less tech-savvy groups such as the elderly.

8. Free trials

You offer a free trial with the clause of needing to sign up with card details.

Any user experience should avoid collecting unnecessary data, but this example is made even worse and much more common when you the free trial in question has an expiry date and users are changed with no prior warning.

Guilt Tripping and Free Trials Dark Patterns

9. Forcing the unintended

You go against the norm and present users with the opposite to mislead or trick them into taking an action.

From hiding options in unintuitive places to using links completely irrelevant to the images that represent them; this dark pattern is a quick way to get someone to leave your page.

10. False notifications

You use designs that look like notification icons to trick users into exploring more content.

Gaming apps are terrible at this and some even using the notifications icon on their App Store thumbnail, but you’re more likely to come across it on social media.

Unintended and False Notifications Dark Patterns

11. Scared transactions

You make the user complete a purchase quickly through fear of missing out or running out of time.

Some uses such as displaying how many items are left in stock are good things (if they actually are low in stock). Putting pressure on users by using false claims and lies, however, is the unethical side of this.

12. Sharing your data

You encourage your user to hand over their personal data for your financial gain, with them having little to no insight into what’s actually going on.

This is one that has definitely not gone unnoticed since the trouble Facebook have been in with their mishandling of data (a little less since GDPR came into play).

13. Targeted spam

You acquire your user’s personal contacts just to spam them with products and services.

This dark pattern is probably closer to hacking; but can be done in clever ways if you’re the type of person who signs up to stuff frequently and click ‘continue’ without fully reading pop-ups or text boxes.

Transactions, Data and Spam Dark Patterns

Surely there's a more ethical alternative?

Ethical design is a code of conduct based on personal beliefs and values as well as those of wider societies.

In its simplest form; it refers to the practices, strategies and tactics when it comes to designing UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface) across websites, mobile apps and digital platforms.

For me, tackling dark patterns means influencing designers and providing people with enough knowledge and skills to offer up ethical alternatives that can achieve the same outcomes.

At the end of the day, if a client is pushing for this approach it can be daunting and courageous to go against them and say ‘this is not the way we want to do things’.

Ethical Design Manifesto
Ethical Design Principles

Source: The Ethical Design Manifesto.

Practice what you preach

We exist to help organisations change the world with Tech For Good, as a mobile app development company who focus on empowering organisations to make a positive impact on the world, it’s crucial for me and the rest of our design team that ethics are at the forefront of everything we do.

That’s why we never resort to using dark pattern design and always design experiences across our mobile apps which have the users best interests at heart. It’s our own ethos or manifesto if you like, aligning our design vision with the Cube’s mission to change millions of lives for the better.

Here are a few of our latest projects practicing what we preach. 


The world's first blood tracking app

American Red Cross

With blood banks running low and donations continuing to drop-off across the US, the American Red Cross reached out to CUBE in an effort to combat the barriers that potential and existing donors were facing. Read more



An app to save our oceans


Using object recognition technology, we helped LUSH develop LUSH Lens to raise awareness of plastic pollution. With the LUSH Lens app, there's no need for packaging! All the information customers need is at their fingertips. Read more

Lush Lens App

Published on April 25, 2019, last updated on May 10, 2021

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