Dark Patterns – When a nudge becomes a shove

March 14, 2019 3:42 pm

Dark Patterns – When a nudge becomes a shove

Nudges are everywhere. They’re the little cues or prompts that encourage us to take a certain journey or follow a certain path. Many we encounter are innocuous, invisibly informing our opinions and influencing our behaviour. Cast your mind back to the last time you saw a nudge, something you understood to be an attempt to gently influence you.

You might have been walking past a pub on a hot day and seen a sandwich board with ‘Beer garden and ice cold Fosters’ written on it.

Did a waiter tell you about the specials unprompted?

Did an airport pathway force you to walk through duty free?

These are all real-world examples, but its in the digital sphere that nudges really come into their own.

Online nudges work hand in hand with good UX – helping you get to where you need to be on a site, or allowing you to complete a purchase in as few steps as possible. This is in line with persuasive design principles; aiming to steer users’ attitudes, behaviours and decisions to get them to the best possible outcome. There is however a yin to the yang of nudges and persuasive design – ‘Dark Patterns’. These are psychological tricks that go beyond nudges to influence decision making and cause us to do something we may not otherwise do, such as automatically subscribing us to a subscription service.

Persuasion architecture or ‘Nudges’ can use the same techniques as dark patterns, the main differentiator being the level of pressure applied. In this article, we aim to highlight the fine line between Nudges and Dark Patterns. We’ve thought about three common nudges that have their benefits, but are also open to exploitation from so called Dark Patterns:

1) Meatball Notifications and Variable rewards

Meatball notifications are used when we have already been converted into a user, they give you a reason to check the app, let you know that quite a lot of activity has taken place while you’ve been busy being productive or having some well-deserved rest.

Most of the time the purpose of a meatball notification is to let us know that somebody has interacted with us directly, commented on our post, liked something, or sent a message. This is beneficial to us, we don’t need to hunt through our history and check each post to see how well it’s done, or scroll through messages to see who has replied, at a glance we have all that information delivered.

This trains us to associate the meatball notification with something useful, and once we have been trained to make that connection the notification is open for abuse to be used as a dark pattern, through pseudo-notifications.

They tell us nothing of direct value or that directly influences the user, you click under the assumption there has been interaction with your page but there has been nothing of the sort, instead the notification just tells you that it’s somebody’s birthday, or that a friend has posted a status for the first time in a while – here a cleverly designed notification has quickly become a manipulative dark pattern.

2) Push Notifications

Push notifications display information directly, they appear at the top of our device with a header and a short message, much like a text message or email preview. As the name implies these are closer to a push than a nudge. Unlike a meatball notification which tantalises us with the lure of unknowns a push notification carries information directly, though usually just enough to get us to log onto the app it came from.

Push notifications certainly have their uses, when your favourite band has a gig in your area and you get one letting you know tickets are about to go on sale, you’re happy for them; or as in the example above it lets you see who a message is from and give you a clue as to the contents to help you decide whether to focus on it now or later. They’re a nudge that helps you achieve an initial goal, or an ambition. They also excel when timed correctly, a news site sending you a push notification when you’re bored on a commute works well, you’re not busy and have time to kill.

But sometimes we are bombarded with them, and when this happens we often end up ignoring them, to the detriment of other apps that use them. They no longer help us achieve an aim, they don’t display useful information, they only exist to get us on the app, like a gaming app reminding you that you haven’t used it in a week or so, to try and bring you back into the fold. Here the technique has transformed from a useful nudge into a Dark Pattern, albeit one lacking subtlety.

3) The Long Goodbye

A key heuristic of web design is allowing for errors, you don’t want users to make catastrophic errors lightly, so it’s important to have a safety net in place. For example, if the ‘delete your account’ button for a site featured prominently on the home page, and after clicking, it did not have a fail safe to confirm your intention that would be phenomenally frustrating.

With this is mind, a site or app checking our choice is clearly useful. We get the option to confirm our choice, and the app has a chance to persuade us to stay – a nudge that benefits us and them.

But there’s a dark side, being trapped in a maze of return pages and pleas for another chance. This is also known as a roach motel. Companies are wising up to emotional manipulation by encouraging you to sign up, then guilting you into staying.

Amazon, for example, make it especially attractive to sign up to but difficult for you to unsubscribe from their Prime service. After completing a free trial, they automatically convert you to a paid membership and start taking payments without any reminders. Once you realise the payments are being taken, Amazon then takes you through three steps before actually completing the subscription. By reminding you of what you’ll be missing, and tactically adjusting the page hierarchy, a simple un-subscription has soon become an awkward task – yet another dark pattern.

Step 1: Amazon tries to remind you of the benefits you will be missing out on

Step 2: Amazon offers monthly payments as an alternative to a year long subscription

Step 3: Final confirmation of Prime subscription ending


The internet is an ultra-competitive market, with apps and sites that no longer meet users’ needs fizzling out. Nudges are a weapon in the fight for survival, which used well can be of immense benefit, streamlining journeys and keeping us up to date with information relevant to us.

When pushed too far into the realm of Dark Patterns they can become manipulative and frustrating.

When designing an app or website it’s important to empathise with the user, or better yet speak to users and test with them to understand when your nudge has become a shove, or when an attempt to keep a customer turns into a maze of confusion.