The inaccessibility of dark patterns

Published by Chris Limb on

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The inaccessibility of dark patterns

Even if you haven’t heard the phrase Dark Patterns, the chances are you’ve almost certainly come across them — both online and in the physical world.

You go to order something online and the button to sign up to their premium subscription delivery service takes up half the page. The link you actually want is tiny, unstyled and often has very poor contrast. Almost as if the page’s designers were trying to hide it.

You’re accessing a website’s cookie preferences. To accept the necessary cookies only and deactivate all the tracking ones requires you to scroll though manually and toggle off every individual setting.

You’re in a supermarket and checking the calories of the food you’re buying. As well as the statutory “per 100 g” calorie count, there’s usually a “per item” number listed for convenience. Except when you look closer, for higher calorie foods it’s often oddly divided up — a one person portion of (say) pasta salad clearly intended as a quick and easy lunch is “per 1/3 pot”. Almost as if the manufacturer is trying to hide the true calorie count in case it puts people off buying.

These are all examples of Dark Patterns. Designs which may follow the letter but not the spirit of the truth; designs intended to trick people into action; designs exploiting human psychology to encourage users to act against their best interests. The dark side of behavioral science.

As amoral as these practices may appear, until legislated against theres probably not much that can be done about it. Many companies will continue to be drawn towards tactics that prioritise increasing sales and engagement.

What’s the big deal?

Well. It’s not just that these procedures are incredibly irritating. But, with regard to digital media at least, the use of these patterns can actually make these experiences pretty inaccessible. Especially for folks who experience disability or neurodiversity.

Accessibility isnt solely about ensuring those with sensory or motor issues can use an interface — there are cognitive issues to bear in mind as well, including anxiety and panic-related conditions.

Let’s take a look at how some of these dark patterns can cause problems…

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Using urgency to trigger an action

The use of countdown clocks and prompts that imply scarcity or competition – “3 other people are looking at this offer right now!” – are used to create a sense of urgency in the user.

A sense of urgency short-circuits rational thought and makes people act quickly without considering the consequences. For some people this compulsion can increase anxiety and mental discomfort to unacceptable levels which can result in panic attacks.

Using ‘difficulty’ to keep users bought in

Urgency is sometimes combined with difficulty. This may seem contradictory at first but is used following the psychological paradigm of “effort justification”. This is related to the sunken cost fallacy, which holds that people are more likely to continue and complete a procedure if they’ve already invested time and effort in it.

However complex instructions and procedures can be difficult for people with ADHD or ADD and they may give up on the process, feeling excluded.

Unclear expectations

A difficult process can be made even worse as a psychological stressor by making it unclear. A user completing a multipage online form will want to know how many more pages there are to go. As this might put them off if the form is too long, the common dark pattern is to make this unclear or be evasive about how much of the process remains, keeping them on tenterhooks and feeding the effort justification.


Another dark pattern is uncertainty. Often there will be a series of check boxes at the end of a purchase, only one of which is actually mandatory — the remainder are a mixture of either check this if you do want us to email you about this” and “ check this if you dont want us to email you about the other”.

Having a deliberately confusing mix and match default for different opt-in options is hard to navigate for most people but can be particularly difficult for those that struggle with information processing. This often results in the user being signed up for emails against their will.

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The Home Office has produced a set of simple guidelines regarding designing for accessibility with each category formatted as a set of paired dos and don’ts.

With regard to designing for users with anxiety these points are grouped under the following five categories.


  • Do give users enough time to complete an action
  • Don’t rush users or set impractical time limits

People with anxiety might take longer to complete something because they are cautious or fear getting it wrong and may re-read and tweak the contents of a form several times before pressing the submit button.

Make sure any time limits on actions are generous and ask yourself whether timing out is even necessary.


  • Do explain what will happen after completing a service
  • Don’t leave users confused about next steps or timeframes

Services that end without any concrete guidance on what will happen next can increase users’ anxiety.

For example, if someone is completing a multi-step process, tell them the next steps and how long those steps normally take. Always design a response message for online submissions to reassure people that the action they just took was successful.


  • Do make important information clear
  • Don’t leave users uncertain about the consequences of their actions

People will become more anxious on services that have consequences for them personally. Clear, simple information is important.

If your service needs to warn users about the consequence of their actions, make sure you give them enough information to make the correct decision, so they can continue confidently.


  • Do give users the support they need to complete a service
  • Don’t make support or help hard to access

Users with anxiety are more likely to need extra support to complete a service.

Users who cannot complete a service on their own might need support from someone else; please make sure that it’s clear from where support is available and provide it through as many channels as possible. Some users may be unable to use email / online chat; others may be unable to use the telephone.


  • Do let users check their answers before they submit them
  • Don’t leave users questioning what answers they gave

You can reassure users by giving them the opportunity to check and change their answers before they submit.

Without this step, users are less informed which could increase anxiety.

What next?

Many businesses will likely still be compelled to favour tactics that deliver faster results in terms of click throughs and purchases.

However, increasing awareness of the challenges that inaccessibility causes for a range of users and bringing more understanding to why accessibility is so important are key steps in building a more accessible world.

We hope that businesses will come to learn that taking an accessible first approach to design doesn’t have to mean compromising on conversion rates. In fact, they may even find that by abandoning dark patterns and providing a comfortable and accessible experience for all users, they actually end up increasing engagement. After all, a happy customer is often a return customer.

Categories: Best Practice