A recent question and discussion got me thinking - some UX practices are considered "dark patterns", and they're held up as bad UX from the user's perspective, though they can actually be good for the person implementing the design. There's clearly a conflict of interest here; some people would consider them "unethical" and refuse to use them. Others may not agree, or care.

Is implementing dark patterns really unethical behaviour? Why? And what other behaviours do people believe should be avoided - is neuromarketing unethical? Is it unethical to make a user experience too slick and easy?

I'm aware that this question could easily slip into discussion, so it's probably best to focus on specific behaviours which could be considered ethically questionable.

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    I honestly believe that we should never be compelled to "exploit" the user for the benefit of the vendor. We can do better! It is our job to do better. That's why we read tons of books and attend dozens of conferences. That's why we follow various blogs every day and study scientific articles indepth. To be able to develop the best solution for the user. And we know that our client/employer will benefit from "the best solution" in the long run. It's out job to know that, and it's our job to prove that to the principal of the project. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 9:13
  • @JørnE.Angeltveit I suspect discussion on this is best held elsewhere, as we don't want to drag the question offtopic.
    – kastark
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 9:21
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    @dhmholley can you restructure this question around one particular dark pattern? It's a bit too broad in scope at the moment, and there is definitely some value in this question, but it needs to be more tightly focused to avoid being closed / flagged.
    – JonW
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 10:29
  • @JonW I'm trying to enumerate different behaviours, rather than focus on one particular one. Changing the scope of the question to focus on one pattern defeats the point of the question. EDIT: To answer your other objection, having been through the FAQ I believe this is within the purview of UX.SE, as it is possible to give definitive answers to this question.
    – kastark
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 10:33
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    dark patterns tend to be more marketing related than UX related.
    – DA01
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 17:13

8 Answers 8


To me, this poses an interesting question;

What is a dark pattern?

Are they something that 'tricks the user'? encourages them to act against their own interest?

or are they something that happens in the shadows of the subconscious? Perhaps some encourage the user to act in their interest. Just subconsciously.

I feel this might be too broad as many psychological effects are not consciously observed by the general user. So let's assume it means a pattern encouraging behaviour not in the user's best interest.

Then there is a further question:

What if you are encouraging something that is against the original wishes of a user but in their interest? (some might debate this concept itself but I'll leave that alone for now).

Ethics is philosphy....

...Therefore debate is it's oxygen.

Ethics is something that has been debated for thousands of years. Being a branch of philosophy it is inherently changing and hazy in some areas. For example a stream of ethics - Consequentialism - hold that the consequences is the basis of moral judgement. This could lend support to the question above. What if, despite being against the wishes of the user, the final outcome was in their interest. Is this ethical?

Other streams claim that contentment or happiness should be the measure. But is that over a short term (where a decision might feel right) or long term (where it might prove to be wrong)? Not to mention the social aspect where you could consider the ethics of when the pleasure of one impacts on another. Pursuit of profit may fall in this category too.

Another stream states that moral judgement should be based on telling the truth (deontology). This might seem clearer. However, what is truth? If we revealed all the mechanisms and facets at play it would inherently increase complexity. Ironically being more unfair to users. How many times do you make judgements for the user? Telling the truth through a lens.

The line is not only grey. It is broad and changing. This is where 'truth', debate or exposure can allow a person or society to decide whether they are willing to accept the practice. One essence of culture is how we frame and react to these situations. (A whole different topic I will skip right now). Personally I consider some dark patterns to be clever, some I'm uncomfortable with and some make me outright mad (hello RyanAir and Fox News...).

In conclusion

Perhaps the aspect that provides the best summary is this quote from Immanual Kant:

Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.

Therefore you may act within presently defined laws, but without a basis of good will it may not be ethical.

On a personal note, I believe that if a business acts with good will. Holding that long-term goal over short term gains, they will be more successful. There is some strong evidence for this. (Plus, I want it to be so :) )

  • I would really like to see a further exploration of this answer, drawing in sources from different philosophies. For now though, you get the accepted answer for being the only person to try to find substantive sources rather than blog posts or your own opinion.
    – kastark
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 8:07

Are Dark Patterns Unethical?

Users will not knowingly choose something against their own interests –they will not voluntarily select a poorer user experience than they otherwise could get. Dark design patterns by definition encourage users to act against their own interest and thus necessarily involve trickery, exploitation, deception, and dishonesty. These are unethical. Everyone has an ethical responsibility to everyone else they affect. Thus we are ethically required to be honest with our users and customers (along with our clients, employers, and more).

The purpose of design is to create a better world –to modify things to make them better for people. That’s probably why you got into design: to provide people with cool products to improve their lives or make products more pleasant to use. Ethically, it’s about maximizing the total social good. In that equation, the interests of the users far outweigh the interests of the shareholders. Furthermore, if a company cannot stay in business designing things to make the world better, then it’s a parasite to society and doesn’t deserve to stay in business. That’s the way capitalism is supposed to work.

What Practices Should be Avoided?

As a practical guideline, your UX is ethical if it produces the best total net UX for your users. However, in some cases it can be ambiguous –users can seem happier (even to themselves), but are they happier? So the next test is to determine if the user experience is real or artificial, where real experiences are ethical experiences:

  • The user experiences real motives, not artificial motives. Real user motives are naturally pre-existing needs and wants your users have. Artificial motives are needs or wants you create through your design, such as posting “Friend” counts on a social web site to create the need for more “friends.” Here I’m using the term “artificial” to mean “manufactured rather than naturally occurring.”

  • The user experiences real fulfillment of his or her needs, not artificial fulfillment. Real fulfillment means your product actually makes things better for users. Artificial fulfillment means you only appear to fulfill the need or want. For example, users think they get through the task faster, when actually it’s slower, or they think they’ve a more impressive-looking product, when really everyone thinks it’s ugly. Here I’m using “artificial” to mean “having the appearance of, but not the substance.”

Another test is to ask yourself is if you’re designing to sell or designing to use. Most of the experience happens after the sale with the use of the product, so that’s the ethical place to be. Focusing on the conversions, branding, and trust is a warning sign that you may not be creating a better user experience because those are goals of the seller, not the user.


Is using order tracking to improve technical support unethical? Well, it improves the user’s experience rather than sales, so you’re past that hurdle. Users have a real pre-existing need for technical support and this tracking will fulfill it (presumably), so that’s okay. As for the net user experience, you need to recognize that not all users experience things the same way. For some, the invasion of privacy is not worth the benefits of improved technical support. So to maximize the UX, users need to be aware of the tracking and have the option to opt out, even if the only way to do that is to take their business elsewhere. Thus, tracking users for tech support is ethical if users are aware of it and can escape it before the fact.

I’ve more on ethics and UX at A Man of Wealth and Taste.


The problem with this question is that all of UX is a psychological trick to make the applications and sites people use as smooth and easy as possible. If these are commerce sites, the reason for this is to get customers to spend more money. So where does the ethical boundary come there? Upselling and promotion are all manipulations to encourage more selling, and making these single-click is a UX involvement that assists that. The Amazon One-click purchase process is good UX, in that it simplifies the buying process, but it has contributed substantially to increased Amazon profits (see Krug "Don't make me think").

Using subliminal advertising, for example, simply takes these ideas a step further. If it is ethical to promote extra spending to customers, then is it really unethical to push this straight at their brains? There are strong arguments both ways on this, and I struggle with finding the balance (I worked on e-commerce sites for 5 years, so I had a long time to struggle with it).

But to answer the core question, what behaviours are unethical, I would say that anything that is not focused on making the users experience and process easier is wrong. Anything that is purely about getting the client more money or information is unacceptable. Subliminal advertising does this. So does silent process tracking (in business applications, for example, so the management can see who is doing what). Upselling and promotions I would put into the category of providing the customer with reminders about other options, and acceptable. YMMV.

  • I thought silent process tracking is just a sophisticated version of user research :) Jokes aside, there was a time when we seriously considered basically full user tracking, as there was a bug reproduced by several freshly registering users about CV upload (HR site) which we just couldn't reproduce and it didn't come out in focus group testing either. But that was to help out user support, not to get any revenue.
    – Aadaam
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 10:37
  • @Aadaam This is why it is such a difficult area to be definitive on. Order tracking is standard, and acceptable for commerce sites. Providing diagnostics is acceptable. Tracking users work activity to see who is working best is, IMO, unethical, because it is done covertly. As I said, others may have a different perspective on this. As with all ethical questions, it is always bigger than a simple "acceptable/unacceptable" classification for specific activities. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 13:11
  • Well, at that workplace there was a way of tracking performance (who gets how many candidates, how many closed deals etc), and the bonus scheme was connected to it, agreed with the worker's union each month; there was a scoreboard on biig plasma screens where you could check it real-time. I don't think there's anything bad with tracking as long as the data is open to every subject (everyone knows everything), or if it's not part of standard business measures but is used to solve certain emergency situations (like, security breaches)
    – Aadaam
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 13:41
  • Done overtly, then it is much better. There is then the challenge of understanding WHAT to measure. As you describe, that is perfectly acceptable. If it had been for the management to decide who to sack, done without anyones knowledge, and without telling you your performance, the same processes would be much more sinister. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 15:24
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    "The problem with this question is that all of UX is a psychological trick to make the applications and sites people use as smooth and easy as possible." Yep. There may be many folks out there who do all that work because they are altruistic, but at the end of the day there is a $ whether we like it or not.
    – gef05
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 5:29

Came across this post today, which seems fitting to this topic: UX, psychology & the ‘dark arts’

His philosophy seems to be:

  1. Don’t trick
  2. Don’t cheat
  3. Don’t lie
  4. Provide positive benefit

I think the whole "dark patterns" UX is a bit of a misnomer. It's really the business practices that are unethical or deceptive or even criminal. Some of these are tantamount to stealing money or on the other side of the scale merely turning off potential customers. The second that people realize they're being taken for a ride, they close their browser window. In other circumstances they find themselves having to complain to ombudsman etc.

Is it a UX "dark pattern" when there's no deception upfront but the company has lax security standards and millions of customer details are stolen?

As part of being competitive in a saturated industry, the industry players structure and market products (e.g. telecomms rates) in a particular way. Is this a "dark pattern"?

Whilst we can readily see shonky online business of various forms, it's not a simple matter of putting certain online user experiences in a basket called "dark patterns". Rather deceptive business models sometimes lead to deceptive presentation of material.

If I buy something online with a credit card, believing I'm buying a single product, only to find out later that it's an automatic periodical subscription. I'm not calling it a bad user experience or "dark pattern" if you will. I'm calling them crooks and calling my bank to re-issue a card...not bothering to try to sort it out with the company concerned.


Is it possible that a lot of the dark patterns are basically just poorly conceived rather than unethical practices? Although I guess the intention of the designer is ultimately what determines whether the practice is ethical or not, the outcome still ends up being a poor experience for the user.

In many cases, what is generally perceived as 'dark patterns' are most likely a bad attempt to try and meet business objectives (sales or conversion targets) that do not take into account of actual user experience and the long term impact to usability and utility of the product or service being provided.

In my humble opinion, it is not the patterns that are 'dark'...


The question you are asking can be rephrased as "Is it ethical to trick someone?".

The gut response to this is 'no'. However, as other answers have demonstrated in a lot of detail, it is much more nuanced than that.

I would recommend researching this question as a generalisation of what you are asking. A good, detailed exploration of the topic can be seen in The Ethics of Manipulation but there are a lot of other resources out there to help you explore the question further.


Any way to make money within the boundaries of the law is Ethical.

Whether something is ethical varies from person to person and often conflicts. Some people might see it as unethical if you don't try to get as much profit for your company as possible. Yet the same people might also see it as unethical if part of maximizing profit is targeting the elderly with deals they don't understand.

That's why there are laws against Unfair business practices.

That's why I think there can't be an answer to this question then to resort to what has been set in law. The law is a combination of what we think is wrong or right.

Also, we live in a capitalistic world where basically "anything goes". So in that respect, using dark-patterns, if they're profitable and legal is perfectly ok.

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    Interesting statement, but could you explain your answer more fully?
    – kastark
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 10:02
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    Ethical is about what you should or shouldn't do. Whether something is ethical or not is very personal. I don't think you can ever reach a consensus on what is and what isn't ethical. The closest we get to that consensus is "the law". So basically the original question is unanswerable but this answer is the closest you can get.
    – Pieter B
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 10:40
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    I couldn't disagree with this statement more. 100 years ago it was legal to own slaves, so by your reason it was ethical? Even on a less blatant note it is perfectly legal to pass wind in a crowded elevator, is that then the ethically 'right' thing to do?
    – JonW
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 12:41
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    "Any way to make money within the boundaries of the law is Ethical" = no. That's legal. But what is legal isn't necessarily what is ethical.
    – DA01
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 17:14
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    This answer couldn't be more wrong. Not to mention simply opinionated and unsubstantiated. Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 11:22

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