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Hackernoon logoThrough a browser, darkly by@JonFletcher

Through a browser, darkly

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Content editor at Marfeel. Optimizing digital publishing through data-backed strategies.

Exposing dark patterns in digital publishing

Try to leave a gallery or a museum and you’ll find the same pattern almost everywhere, ‘Exit through the gift shop’. To take the action you want, you have to first take the action a company wants you to take.

Online, companies use their UI in the same way. Creating navigation tunnels that lead the user away from where they want to go. At one end of the spectrum, companies promote the behaviour they want users to take, at the other, they deliberately confuse and trick users into certain actions.

This is done by adding unnecessary complications to the UI to keep users clicking, or deliberately obfuscating certain options, hoping to catch a few unsuspecting users into staying subscribed, clicking extra links, or accepting unnecessary charges.

These subtle twists of the UI are known as ‘Dark Patterns’, “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.”

The majority of users are familiar with spam websites using these tactics. The ‘X’ that is actually a disguised link, false downloads, or pop-ups that jump around the screen, generating a few seconds of impression time as you hunt for the close option.

These options are extreme, easy to spot. But reputable sites, publishers included, also use subtle dark patterns to maximize revenue by keeping their readers on the page a little longer.  Dark patterns are used to give the appearance of engagement when in reality they are just trapped in a maze, searching for an exit. 

Let's take a journey through the most common dark publishing patterns

Airlines are seen as the Patient Zero of dark patterns, and rightly so, with optional extras pre-selected, disguised provisos and conditions hiding in every turn of the UI. But, digital publishers are not exempt from using dirty tactics.

To inflate impression time, the dark path is to build a dizzying maze that puts walls and missteps between the user and the action they want to take. 

So, to give the appearance of a clear navigation route, one of the most common dark patterns is to break the consistency of normal design. Flipping UIs gets the user to do the opposite of what they intended, through force of habit.

The blue button, usually used to signify agreement / positive intent is now used to cancel the action, confirm is greyed-out. The normal visual grammar of the page has been flipped. In the split-second decisions users take, it’s easy to click the wrong option and continue without ever noticing you've been deceived.

Hidden exits

With subscriptions and user accounts forming a key strategy of publisher revenue models, disguising the exit of these programs is a common dark pattern. The most frequently seen example is to minimize the button and text of the exit, buried behind pages that implore you stay, and highlighting the option that keeps your account open.

Publishers should consider, ‘What will this achieve apart from keeping a small percentage of users subscribed?’. 

Hidden exits are a victory of data over sense. Publishers can show that the new UI has an impact on reducing unsubscribes at the last minute. What this data doesn’t show is the damage done to brand reputation or the users that notice that dark pattern and resent the implication that they can be fooled, never returning to the website.

animation made by Wiktor Buksza from 10Clouds


Confirm sharing is Passive-aggressive copy that implies you must be educationally subnormal if you don’t do what the pop-up instructs you to. It’s usually used on newsletters or subscription sign-ups.

This is another example of how dark patterns can succeed in increasing short term metrics. Some readers might be more convinced to sign up, but like a bad joke, it gets old quickly. Passively implying your readers are stupid is never going to be a long-term strategy to build an engaged audience. 

Disguised ads

Ads disguised as other kinds of content or navigation,  to get you to click on them. This can be one of the most infuriating dark patterns for readers as not only does it fool them, it directs them to a new page, often with uncertain security credentials.


False connectivity issues

A contentious dark pattern that might raise some sympathy among publishers is creating false connectivity issues for readers with ad blockers enabled. 

If a publisher relies on ad revenue, they should be explicit. It’s often not the action that users resent, but duplicity from a company they hold to a higher standard.

Consequences of darkness

Dark patterns are often pyrrhic victories. Users that get finessed into an extra months subscription are then gone forever. Manipulation is not a sustainable business model.

Dark patterns are the UI equivalent of attempting to deceive users with the sophistication of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. While it might work a few times out of a hundred, the majority of users that are already wise to these tactics suddenly feel as if the house just tried to bottom deal. It casts an ugly film on your brand that will do more to damage your results than any result spikes.

One of the most famous consequences of operating a dark pattern was Linkedin’s high profile lawsuit where they found liable for spamming email addresses under the guise of being from a LinkedIn user.

The settlement decided that the dark patterns used by Linkedin to bamboozle users into agreeing to hand over messaging rights to their contact list constituted a violation. In addition to major dent to user trust and their brand reputation, Linkedin were forced to pay $13 million in fines and restitution. 

So, what's the difference between an effective UI and an a dark pattern?

The goal of a good UI is to help users navigate their way through the site. Publishers will want to do whatever is possible to encourage users to continue reading pages on their site but the line blurs when the goal is to prevent users from taking the action they intend.

Format UI buttons honestly and clearly

Let readers take the action they want. Don’t dangle exit buttons or negative actions slightly out of reach. It will do nothing but sour the reader experience for the sake of some falsely inflated metrics. 

Clarity and consistency

Break navigation down into simple, clear categories with consistent patterns of navigation. If a reader learns to expect action, keep this pattern throughout.

Work with reputable advertising partners

For readers, the distinction between the publisher and the advertiser is non-existent. If are ads run dark patterns, you run dark patterns. Ensure ad quality by working with trusted advertising networks and preventing dark formats from displaying on your site.

To measure the depth of your darkness, measure by returning users, time spent on pages, and content page views per session. By following the metrics of the average user, rather than those of a single page, you can see the effect that the experience has on the user. 

Dark patterns do nothing but inflate metrics in the short term before corroding user trust and confidence over time. Just as dark patterns will work to eventually turn users away, consistently good use experiences create returning users and brand advocates. 


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