Through some random surfing over at Smashing Magazine, I came across a site devoted to Dark Patterns. I was unfamiliar with the phrase, so spent a little time reading about it.

What I found was that the phrase “Dark Patterns” is a catch all that applies to a variety of deceptive design patterns in web design. I watched a 30 minute lecture on Dark Patterns to become more familiar. Here are a few of the different Dark Pattern techniques I learned about.

The Roach Motel

The Roach Motel is a category of dark pattern design that makes it very easy for a user to get into a situation, and difficult to get out of.

This includes things like being able to easily sign up for a service, but not being able to easily get out of it. Good examples would be signing up for a subscription service online, but not being able to cancel it online. cites as a great example of the roach motel technique and outlines the painstaking process of trying to unsubscribe from paid delivery of the Wired magazine service, which ultimately leaves the user frustrated at the realization that they simple cannot cancel their service online.

The site also references, which allows users to sign-up for a free membership online, but if they want to cancel their account, they’ll need to do so via regular postal mail.

The catch is that while it’s free to sign-up initially, you’ll be hit with an $8.95 charge per week to continue the service? Want to cancel that account? You won’t being doing it on

Check out more on the Roach Motel technique

Bait and Switch

The old bait and switch takes place when a user intends to do one thing, but something else happens. Something unintended and undesirable.

Perhaps you sign up for a free account on an online dating site under the guise that you can browse and view listings of available singles in your area. This is great until you find the person you’re interested in getting to know better and then… you hit a pay wall, which requires you to upgrade your account and pay a monthly fee to actually view the person’s full profile and initiate any sort of communication with them.

Sure, if you look closely in the fine print, you’ll see it there. But the reason it’s in the fine print and not publically known, is because they want to lure you in with big expectations and then hit you up for your hard earned cash. Sound familiar, anyone?

Check out more on the ol’ bait and switch technique

Sneak into basket

The sneak into basket technique is a tricky way to tack additional items to your purchase through a lengthy or confusing checkout process.

GoDaddy is notorious for doing this. If you’ve ever purchased anything — even something as simple as a domain — through GoDaddy, you’ll be amazed as they shamelessly try to push other services, add-ons, enhancements, etc. on you at the point of purchase. The entire process of ordering a domain is a well crafted clusterfuck designed specifically to confuse so you’ll overlook the all the additional things they are trying to slip past you.

Check out more on the Sneak into basket technique

Forced Continuity

The Forced Continuity technique involves giving a user a free trial account on a website, but requiring them to enter credit card information to gain access to the trail. Following the trail, the user’s credit card is automatically changed for the paid service without an adequate reminder or an easy way of terminating the automatically renewal.
references, who deceptively fails to list recurring monthly items as one-time payments. So in your cart, that item appears to be $8.49 when in reality it’s $8.49 each month until you cancel the service.

Learn more about Forced Continuity

Friend Spam

Friend spam happens when a site, app or game asks for your social media or email information, which it then uses to post information promoting their product to your friends or contacts — under the guise that it’s actually coming from you. You see this all the time on Twitter and in Facebook status updates.

This practice is fine as long as it’s explicitly stated and you opt in to have them access and use your account in this manner. It gets sketchy when they unknowingly do it.

Learn more about the Friend Spam technique

Disguised Ads

Disguised ads are basically ads that are deceptive either in design or placement. They can be pop up ads designed to look like your native OS. Remember those pop ups designed to look like a Windows virus scanning program? They were designed to mimic the Windows XP interface telling you they’ve discovered viruses on your computer and you could “click here to repair your system now”? Clicking the button would take you to a site advertising anti virus software being sold by the company who created the pop up window. Basically, a clever ad that fooled a lot of people. That’s a great example of disguised ads.

Although it looks like they’ve since changed their practices, I keep thinking back to those free software download sites like Softpedia and ZDNet which litter their download screens with ads that are designed and placed on the page in a way that will confuse you into clicking them when you’re actually trying to click something else.

Looking for a button to download some free software? Surely it’s one of the 3 buttons with the word DOWNLOAD in it. Which one though? I guess you’ll have to ask yourself if you’re feeling lucky.

Other Techniques

There are several other dark pattern techniques I haven’t mentioned, which include Hidden Costs, Trick Questions, Price Comparison Prevention, Forced Disclosure and something called Privacy Zuckering, which sounds pretty nasty.

I’ll let you read more about those over at

mswanson is a Web Designer and Mobile Expert for Mindscape at Hanon McKendry