Dark patterns in action

Design should be ethical, or it isn’t design.

Luca Benazzi
8 min readDec 15, 2015

Intentional UI traps

As professionals, we should not support enterprises whose business model is rooted in shady practices to trick users.

LinkedIn: a frantic attempt to connect you with the whole universe

Designers and developers united. The plan:

  • Get as many contacts as possible from customers’ email.
  • Spam as many random people as possible.
  • Send invitations up to three times per person, if they don’t respond.

A carefully crafted, deceptive dialogue, right after accepting a pending invitation:

Users are unwittingly tricked to “Add connection(s)” indiscriminately, possibly thinking that the main call to action still refers to the current invitation. And obviously, there’s no easy way to go back.

(as of September 2014)

“Why not invite some people?” It’s only a few hundred or thousand contacts; LinkedIn will do it for you automatically! And in case you were wondering, the default is on “Select all”.

LinkedIn’s intrusiveness knows no boundaries.

  • Lots of exposed email contacts just as long as you are logged in with your email provider and LinkedIn at the same time.
  • It can be any email account, not necessarily the one you used to register.
  • Invitations are also sent to people you barely know or you don’t want to be in touch with.

Thankfully, some good people thought that enough was enough, and launched a class action lawsuit against the company. The result was announced last October: the parties agreed on a settlement, and LinkedIn will have to pay $13M to its US-based customers.

Twitter: be incommensurably social

LinkedIn is not the only shrewd player in the landscape of social networks. First time login on Twitter through the Android app:

(as of January 2015)

‘Upload my address book’ is ticked by default, as a showcase of design stupidity. Almost 1500 invitations waiting to be submitted in the fraction of a second. Designers made sure the ‘Skip’ call to action is styled as a secondary, hardly noticeable button. That’s why it’s important to study visual design and cognitive psychology, how could marketing geeks alone get the job done?!

Change.org: McDonald’s of petitions?

This is a petition page from change.org:

You seriously believe the topic deserves visibility, so you click on the ‘Sign’ button. The next screen says that you might also support a series of other petitions, but they are sponsored ones:

The prominence of the red button makes it very easy to click on it, as you’d normally do to dismiss a confirmation page. And voilà, you’ve just signed a petition that you couldn’t care less about, and subscribed to Oxfam’s newsletter, so marketers can now harass you on a regular basis.

I guess it’s not a coincidence that I am seeing a sheep here. Looks like their idea of a petition site is big numbers and following the herd. Politics as marketing.

Lack of clarity

Another way to mislead people is through lack of information. Deliberate or not, the practical outcome of omitting essential information is a usability clog. When real people are not there to answer questions, interfaces should be designed to provide a redundancy of information. Nevertheless, this common-sense practice is hardly observed.

GoDaddy: good luck with your transfer

GoDaddy’s cluttered interface has generated numerous complaints over the years. The checkout process is a minefield of upsell options. One moment of distraction can leave you buying undesired services.

When trying to transfer a domain name from GoDaddy to another registrant (because you really can’t bear it any longer), the domain management page throws up a set of instructions:

(as of November 2015)

Pretty accurate, and following the steps will probably grant a linear, successful transfer. Point 3, though, is not clear on the cancellation process: on the domain management page there’s no straightforward way of cancelling the protected registration. The easiest way is to search under the help section of the site, no surprise if people miss that. The initial four steps can also be missed, when the transfer process is initiated from the website of the new registrar. When that happens, the transfer is simply refused with no explanations and no instructions on the steps to take. The result is a time-consuming and tedious series of phone calls to customer support. This is silly business logic: a customer requesting a transfer clearly expresses their intention, why aren’t they taking it into consideration, as they were supposed to? It wouldn’t be a big deal to send out emails to explain any wrongdoing and what other solutions are available.

By not providing accurate information, the company puts their customers on track to miss the transfer altogether and forget about it.

To add more confusion, the ‘Transfers’ section on the domain management page shows no pending transfers, even after they have been initiated. It’s also ugly, badly designed, and out of alignment.

The dialogue to cancel auto-renew has some issues, too:

First you set auto-renew to disabled, then click ‘Save’.

An error message pops up. The abstruse language requires some cognitive effort to get through. It must be surprisingly difficult for designers at GoDaddy to handle such tricky scenarios! That aside, it looks like a confirmation, rather than an error message. You then either go instinctively for the prominent ‘OK’ button, or indulge on the ‘View errors’ link, and that is one step too many that could be avoided:

Imagine going through this series of dialogues without reading everything, as most people are likely to do. It may look as if auto-renew has been disabled, while in reality it has not. Do they do it on purpose? It’s hard to say; certainly it’s not what you’d call a user-friendly interface.

Freelancer: hidden fees behind unsuspected calls to action

Let’s now look at the world’s biggest marketplace for freelancers. After posting a project to hire and then deciding to delete the project, this overlay pops up:

(As of November 2015)

The text is verbose and not optimised for the web. Three bullet points would be a good option here, but clarity would not serve the (intentional?) purpose of hiding the €5 fee associated to project deletion. It’s non refundable and it’s easy to proceed without paying attention to this discreet act of reverse kindness. Can you imagine what a joy, if every website connected to your accounts would contain similar patterns in place?

Customer support replies by saying that it costs money to remove the page from search engine results. But who ever demanded to show my profile page and posted projects on Google, without asking me for consent? They do it for their own sake, and it’s actually quite annoying that there is no way to opt out.

Airbnb: suspicious anti-usability design choices

Despite the huge popularity of the site, some pages on Airbnb still remain a perfect example of ill-considered design. Booking a room for two nights in London, the search results page looks like this:

(as of November 2015)

A few points here:

  • No indication of the number of nights (not essential but it would certainly help). Consequently, no clarity on price: is it per 1 night or per 2 nights?
  • Max price does not align with the draggable pin, thus adding confusion and cognitive overload.
  • Results are displayed randomly; it’s impossible to sort by price.

By clicking on the second result (top right), we finally get the clarity we were expecting on the previous screen:

The actual price per two nights is double of what was displayed on the search results page. That can easily mislead people, and a two-night booking is a fairly common scenario. On top of that, being unable to sort by price makes it easier for users to miss the cheapest options.

Oddly enough, the AirBnb service fee is proportional to the total price. Judge by yourself, whether this is intentional or not, but the practical outcome is the same: unless they pay sufficient attention, customers end up spending more money (and Airbnb gets a significant part of it).

Design should be ethical, otherwise it’s nothing.

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Further reading on dark patterns

Dark Patterns
A repository of dark patterns examples, the site is entirely dedicated to this topic.

LinkedIn dark patterns
A detailed analysis of dark practices at LinkedIn during the sign up process, with plenty of screenshots. It shows very clearly how they get into your email address and get to your contacts list. Truly unbelievable, get ready for that.

LinkedIn is “breaking into” user emails, spamming contacts — lawsuit
All the details about LinkedIn’s tricks to deceive users, form an insider’s view.

Search results for ‘LinkedIn’ on Hacker News
Just to get the idea of how positive is the opinion that people have of LinkedIn.

Users’ complains on linkedin.com’s Help Center
Countless complaints from people who fall victims of LinkedIn tricky practices.

GoDaddy still violates ICANN policy — and still sleazy
The account of the troublesome process for getting domains transferred out from GoDaddy (dated 2011).

Dark patterns on Twitter
More examples of shady UIs from the popular social network.

Michael McIntyre Online Shopping
On a lighter side, Michael McIntyre’s funny take on the web of deceit. Not to be missed.

Stop it! (by Andy Leverenz)
Andy Leverenz wrote a great article about design habits that are supposed to drive engagement, but instead, cause significant annoyance and distraction to the users. Very succinct and easy to go thorough, recommended, and don’t miss the comment left by Phil T Tipp!



Luca Benazzi

Design should make people’s life better. Designer and UX trainer, www.humaneinterface.net. Founder of UX Map (www.ux-map.com).