What are Dark Patterns?

"Dark patterns are design patterns that lead users to act in a certain way that is contrary to their interests, exploiting design power unilaterally in the interests of their creator."

The phenomenon of dark patterns has already been described and investigated many times, particularly from the perspective of interface design. However, there is no uniform, generally applicable definition of the term originally coined by Brignull. We initially base dark patterns on a broad definition which includes all core elements of the common descriptions:

The term "design patterns" originates from architecture and describes a template abstracted from a specific application for the solution of a recurring design problem. Computer sciences picked up this term, for example in the area of interface design. The aim of interface design is an optimized design of user interfaces, e.g. the interactions between humans and machines, which in the age of digitization play a prominent role in almost all areas of life and are developing into a central factor in the digital economy. Designers use them, for example, to make surfaces and operating elements comprehensible for users.

Since the dark pattern phenomenon has thus far mainly been viewed from the perspective of interface design, the term is almost exclusively applied to the area of digital environments. This includes social networks, shopping, travel and booking portals, but also all other websites or apps on which users can take actions themselves. It does not seem far-fetched to transfer the concept of dark patterns to the analog world - for example, to buying incentives through the arrangement of supermarket shelves in the checkout area. However, the restriction to digital environments is approriate for the analysis of dark patterns since digital constructs can operate in a more powerful and nuanced way than their non-digital counterparts.

The target group or those affected by dark patterns includes all (end) users. Certain groups of people such as consumers or children do not seem to be more or less affected so far. However, as people with different backgrounds and group affiliations may be more or less susceptible to influence, specialized dark patterns are conceivable.

The behavioural reactions of persons affected by dark patterns are described inconsistently. Clicking a cookie banner or concluding a sales contract may constitute such a provoked behaviour. Some authors focus on the disclosure of personal data. Ultimately, the concrete behaviour provoked by dark patterns may result in a broad variety of actions, omissions or acquiescence.

The term dark pattern has a clear negative connotation, conveying a moral condemnation. Any descriptions imply that dark patterns have a harmful effect on the targeted or affected group, but they do not clearly name a specifically affected legal interest. Different authors rather vaguely speak of "disadvantages", "negative consequences", or "things that are not wanted" - ultimately, it seems that dark patterns are perceived as generally affecting people's actual "interests" or "preferences".

However, it is questionable whether such vague terms as "interest" or "preference" adequately describe the phenomenon and whether they are legally operational. Alternatively, one could refer to the interference with the indivdual's decision-making autonomy or with free will formation. It might also suitable to rather focus on the mode of influence that dark patterns exert. Yet, such alternative views on the phenonemon have not been established.

A particular design as such does not explain why it influences users in a particular way. Dark patterns use diverse modes of influence: they manipulate, deceive or trick, coerce, force or steer. A large part of these mechanisms, however, essentially makes use of effects of behavioral economics (e.g. loss aversion), biases or heuristics. Other dark patterns exploit insights of (empirical) design research or mixtures of several disciplines. However, there is no comprehensive explanation on how dark patterns operate on the individual.

Find a categorization of different types of dark patterns with examples here: