‘Dark patterns’ can ruin your online experience. Here’s how to avoid them.

Some sites and apps want to trick you. Don't let them.
Person with glasses working on computer in the dark, probably trying to find dark patterns on websites.
Dark patterns are not always grim and mysterious. To the contrary, they make it easy to make one choice over another. Alan Navarro / Unsplash

The internet is a confusing place and some of that is on purpose. Dark patterns, sometimes called deceptive patterns, are tricks designers use to make you do something you didn’t want to, like signing up for a newsletter or visiting another website. 

This practice also includes “disguising ads to look like independent content, making it difficult for consumers to cancel subscriptions or charges, burying key terms or junk fees, and tricking consumers into sharing their data,” says the Federal Trade Comission.

A lot of websites and apps—including otherwise reputable ones like Amazon or The New York Times —use dark patterns in their platforms. Learning how they work and how to spot them can help you protect your money and data online.

Only one button

While going through the setup process for a new application, it’s easy to just click “Next” or “Continue” without reading anything. The people who make software know this and take advantage of your dislike for installation wizards. For example, while setting up Dropbox on a new device, the app will ask if you want to keep your computer backed up:

The Dropbox installation wizard has dark patterns to push you into backing up all of your files.
Dropbox may have an interest in you using up as much space in the cloud as possible. Justin Pot for Popular Science

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to back up your computer files, and some people might sincerely find this feature useful. But if you look closely you’ll notice every folder is checked by default, and even if you uncheck them or click Modify folder selection, a lot of people won’t do that and will end up just clicking the Set up button. Dropbox developers know this: they want you to click the button probably because backing up your Documents folder will quickly fill up your cloud space, which means you’ll need to upgrade to a premium account sooner. 

[Related: When you should and shouldn’t accept a website’s cookies]

And yes, you can click the Not right now option, but you’ll notice that it’s not as prominent as the Set up button. In fact, it is intentionally much less emphasized: It’s smaller and off to the right, displayed as a link, not a button, and it doesn’t feature that bright, inviting blue the other links in the wizard have.

Pay attention and you’ll see this same dark pattern everywhere. Most newsletter popups on websites, for example, use a similar combination.

The only real way to outsmart this particular trick is to actually read what’s on the screen while setting up software. I know—that sounds exhausting, but it’s better than getting bamboozled into using features you don’t want.

Suspicious subscriptions

Companies would much rather have subscribers paying a fee every month than one-time customers. Most of the time they are transparent about this and will clearly emphasize that you’re, indeed, signing up for a subscription. But every once and a while you might end up signing up for a monthly service without realizing it. 

You’ll usually find this dark pattern when signing up for a free trial that requires you to provide your credit card information. The catch is that once your free trial is over, the platform will immediately charge you for the subscription and probably set it up for auto-renewal. Politicians have also been known to do this, for example, by pre-checking a box that turns what seems like a one-time donation into a monthly one.

The main way you can identify this dark pattern is to actually read the text next to any checkmarks before you buy something. This will help you make sure it’s not a recurring payment. And if you’ve already made a mistake, this is your chance to manage those subscriptions draining your bank account.

Ads that look like content

Some online advertisements will usually disguise themselves in the hopes of tricking you to click them. The most infamous look like download buttons and are often situated on sites offering software. But sometimes they look like links or previews to news articles.

[Related: How to block pop-ups and annoying auto-play videos]

The main way to recognize this tricky design is to hover your mouse pointer over a link or photo and look at the address it wants to take you to—you can see it in the bottom-left corner of your browser. Generally, if it’s a legitimate link, it will live on the site you expect, which is either the publication you’re reading or the page for the software in question. If, instead, you see something like “googleads” or “doubleclick” in the URL it’s probably just an ad.

Keep an eye out for dark patterns

These are just a few of the deceptive designs you’ll run into. The main lesson is to never assume that design choices are neutral or those default settings are the ones that will work best for you. Every company has an agenda, which may or may not be aligned with your best interests.

If you want to learn more about other dark patterns and how to spot them the website deceptive.design has a more tricks you’ll find around the web. Stay safe out there.