Design trends: Dark web patterns

A new trend has emerged in the website world, but unlike our other website design trends, this one is not a practice you should consider for your personal website under any circumstances. Dark web patterns are misleading or deceptive techniques used to trick you into something you wouldn’t otherwise want to do. Here are a few examples of dark web patterns — a concerning new trend to be aware of but never use.

Example 1: “Confirshaming”

Also known as “confirm shaming” or “confirmshaming,” “confirshaming” attempts to guilt you into making a choice, usually an online subscription but sometimes a purchase. Confirshaming uses a yes-or-no type decision and makes the “no” sound ominous or infers that you’re stupid to choose it. Imagine if we offered a subscription to our MPWR Monday website tips newsletter with options like the following: “Yes, I’d like to subscribe!” and “No, I’m satisfied with a terrible website.” See how that plays to the emotions of anyone who chooses not to subscribe? It’s distasteful at best if not completely unethical. (Side note: We’d love for you to subscribe to our newsletter and receive tips like this one every week, but we also completely understand if you choose not to do so. Newsletters aren’t for everyone and we won’t think any less of you if you don’t subscribe!)

What to do instead

Instead of shaming people who refuse your offer, provide them incentive to accept it. For example, we offer a free plugin download to anyone who subscribes to our newsletter. Create something valuable and offer it exclusively to people who accept your offer — whether it’s a newsletter or a product purchase — and you’re more likely to have people willingly choose to accept it. Then, once they’ve accepted your offer, make sure what you’re offering has value too. Don’t attempt to spam or oversell to your email list or you may not have one for very long.

Example 2: Concealed choices

Another example of a dark web pattern is hiding undesirable options. This has become a popular trend on news websites. Many of them show a “nag screen” for people using ad blockers asking them to disable them, and the option to continue without disabling the ad blockers is barely visible in tiny text or in a low-contrast color. Other times, the “X” button to close a dialog is displayed in a low-contrast color or so tiny that it is virtually impossible to tap on a mobile device. We’re not presenting these issues to debate as to whether or not ad blockers are ethical — that’s a controversial topic we’ll save for another day — but this practice of concealing choices is simply bad design. It also creates accessibility issues for low-vision users.

What to do instead

It’s perfectly acceptable to use design to indicate a preference to your users. In fact, most UX experts recommend creating a brightly-colored button for a desired option and a less vivid button for an undesired option. This mechanic has been around for years, dating back to early versions of computer operating systems with a blue “OK” button and a gray “Cancel” button. However, it’s important to make both options clear and visible to your users. Your website’s visitors are smart enough to make a good decision without concealing undesired options from them.

Example 3: Hidden costs

A third dark web pattern is that of a hidden cost. It can come in its traditional form — think back to the days of TV infomercials promising a low price and then charging substantial shipping, handling, or processing costs — or it could be an informational cost. Have you ever taken a questionnaire on a website and spent several minutes on it, only to find that it required personal information from you at the very end? Maybe it asked you to log into a social website like Facebook and wanted access to your friend list, or maybe it required an email address, but asking extra things from users after they’ve taken the time to take an action on your site leaves an extremely bad taste in users’ mouths.

What to do instead

Be up front about what you’re looking for. Do you want to collect email addresses? Make that clear from the beginning. Do you need to charge shipping for your products? That’s understandable and acceptable, but make sure to include the words “plus shipping,” “shipping extra,” or something similar on your product pages.

Other dark web patterns

These are just a few popular examples of several different dark web patterns. Many dark web patterns are simply online forms of old tricks, like a bait-and-switch, a subscription that starts without warning at the end of a free trial, or a subscription that is difficult to end (this is known as a “roach” model).

Remember that transparency is key when creating a website. If you’re offering products or services of value, you shouldn’t need to deceive people. It’s always better to take the high road and be clear about what you’re offering and what you’re requesting in return.