• April 24, 2020
  • By Andrew Hogan, principal analyst, Forrester Research

How to Avoid Dark Patterns that Frustrate and Anger Your Customers

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With the coronavirus pandemic shutting things down worldwide and fear and uncertainty on the rise, consumers need trusted sources of information more than ever before. Unfortunately, falling consumer trust has been an ongoing concern, and Forrester Research has detected a rise in what it refers to as “dark patterns.” Dark patterns are interface design techniques intended to trick customers, and a Cornell study found that about 10 percent of e-commerce sites use these tricks. Forrester recently published a report into the causes of dark patterns and how to stop them. But before we dive into the causes, how can you recognize a dark pattern? You’ve encountered one if you’ve ever run into these ploys:

  • A site telling you how many other visitors are supposedly looking at the same item as you. These are rarely true—they’re usually generated by commerce software to trick you into buying out of a fear of missing out.
  • A request for agreement that asks you to choose between “yes I agree” and an insulting or shaming option like “no, I don’t care about my health.”
  • Laborious forms to fill out followed by a surprise fee to finish the task (looking at you, tax prep software).

A quick way to detect dark patterns is to look at whether an interface or choice is (a) restrictive, (b) asymmetric, or (c) deceptive.

For example, those generated numbers of people looking at items are often deceptive, and the “x” for dismissing an offer window is often small so it’s that much harder to spot or click.

All design choices steer customers toward certain outcomes over others and that’s not necessarily bad. These choices fall on a spectrum ranging from nudges, which encourage behaviors that benefit customers, to dark patterns, which trick people into doing things that conflict with their own interests.


Companies that engage in dark patterns can expect bad press, lawsuits, regulatory ire, and angry employees. Most damaging of all, dark patterns are linked to loss of trust, our qualitative research shows. A customer who trusts a company is three times more likely to remain a customer and nearly five times more likely to increase spending with that company and to recommend it.


How can you help steer your company away from inflicting dark patterns on customers? Here are a few techniques our research uncovered:

  • Speak the language of risk to remedy an overly narrow focus. Broaden the discussion beyond the immediate goal and look for potential hazards. One tactic (known as the New York Times test) involves asking: “Would you want a headline written about the decision you’re making?”
  • Respond to pressure from authority by invoking your company’s principles. Your firm’s decisions about how to design experiences are driven at least by culture and probably also by explicit principles. We’re not talking about motivational clichés hung on the wall that everyone ignores, but about core principles execs vigorously defend. Consider Netflix, which sends a reminder to customers that their free trial is ending rather than letting them slip into incurring unwanted charges like most firms do.
  • Overcome otherness by humanizing the people affected. When people ignore the individuals affected by dark patterns, you can inspire them to care by tapping design research. Have stakeholders observe users trying to get something done but encountering dark patterns in the process. Language matters, too. Until recently, Uber internally referred to drivers with the dehumanizing term “supply.” When a driver chose to sign off for the day or take a break, the company’s app displayed insistent, manipulative messages: “Are you sure you want to go offline? Demand is very high in your area. Make more money; don’t stop now!” Drivers reported feeling pressured to keep working even though it meant driving while fighting the urge to sleep and therefore endangering themselves and their passengers. Uber now refers to drivers as “partners,” one of several changes enacted to treat its driver stakeholders better.

You won’t always win—but there will be a next time. Design leader and author Gretchen Anderson advocates for not giving up even if dark patterns go live despite your efforts to prevent them. The fact that you tried will make the conversation easier next time. She points out that in trying to persuade stakeholders, you elevate your authority and make yourself an asset in the right organization.

Andrew Hogan is a principal analyst at Forrester Research. 

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