Finding the Good in Dark Patterns

This summer, we have been going through so much paper in our house. The kids are constantly creating art, and while I love the creativity that they’re practicing and the joy that they experience in the process, the truth is that we end up with a lot of artwork that looks like this:

Modern art

Yeah, it’s not getting framed or saved, it’s going straight into the recycling bin. The Northern California conservationist in me weeped for all the majestic trees who met their destiny after less than five seconds at the hands of a toddler.

This feeling of guilt made me wonder how I could influence the kids to get the most out of each material before discarding it. I started off by collecting scratch paper — paper where one side remained unmarked and usable. Then, whenever they asked me for paper and I felt scratch paper would suffice, I would tell them to choose scratch paper instead.

Those with kids will know that the “telling” strategy didn’t work. They preferred a nice, clean sheet of paper and were frustrated when they didn’t get one. After one tantrum too many, I knew that I needed to try something else.

And perhaps surprisingly, I drew inspiration from dark patterns. As product managers and designers, it’s been drilled into us that DARK PATTERNS ARE BAD. Dark patterns trick users into doing something that they don’t want to do. But what if the thing that they don’t want to do is actually good for them? Dark patterns are only bad when there’s a misalignment of interests and they trick the user into doing something that’s good for the company’s goals and bad for the user’s goals. I wondered if dark patterns could be good when they trick users into advancing the user’s goals, especially when it’s something the user might not want to do, like eat vegetables or exercise.

One infamous dark pattern is the Roach Motel. In a Roach Motel, you get into a situation very easily, but when you try to get out, there’s a ton of friction that makes it hard to get out. Think about how hard it is to cancel a subscription that you’ve signed up for. What if I sprinkled a little bit of Roach Motel to our paper situation?

Here was our original setup where scratch paper and white paper were equally available and accessible with one tray of white paper and one tray of scratch paper:

Original paper setup

My hypothesis was that if I added some friction to getting white paper, I could drive more usage of scratch paper. Instead of having both papers equally accessible, I kept the tray of scratch paper intact, but I put white paper and construction paper into envelopes that sat in the other tray:

New paper setup

Taking a piece of white paper out took two steps, while grabbing a scratch paper took only one step. The white paper was less accessible, but still available for the times when the kids really wanted it and were willing to make the incremental effort.

I made the change. I didn’t say a word about the switch up. I just observed user behavior. Do you think it worked?

Initially, I thought the experiment was a failure. Making the white paper less accessible didn’t immediately stop them from consuming it. It seemed that their preference for clean paper was stronger than the friction I’d added.

However, over time, the updated design made them more aware of their consumption. I started to hear things like, “I just need scratch paper for this.” Rather than driving an immediate change, the new setup drove a gradual behavioral shift, in which their perception of scratch paper evolved. They realized that they were able to accomplish their user goal of creating art using scratch paper without sacrificing their utility, and I accomplished my user goal of being a little more friendly to the environment. The Roach Motel was a success.

This idea of using dark patterns for good can be applied in the digital world as well. Nearly every site wants to convert traffic from visitors to sign ups as quickly and easily as possible, and the dark pattern of Roach Motel occurs when it’s too easy to sign up and too hard to get out. Rahul Vohra took a very counterintuitive approach when signing up users for Superhuman. He knew that people who weren’t power users of email wouldn’t have an ideal experience with Superhuman and their user goal might not be met, so he wanted to pre-empt those people from using the service. To identify those whose user goal was best aligned with Superhuman’s service, he made the sign-up process difficult. People interested in Superhuman first had to answer a survey, which was reviewed for fit, and then those who were invited to join had to participate in a 30-minute onboarding call with a specialist. Superhuman completely flipped the Roach Motel around and made it hard to get in.

Another dark pattern is Misdirection, which focuses your attention on something in order to distract your attention from something else. I strive to keep my email at inbox zero. When I open my inbox on my phone in the morning, I spend the first few minutes swiping left on all of those marketing emails that get sent in the middle of the night. With my Yahoo email account, I can delete emails, but with my Gmail account, I only have the option to archive them. It turns out that this misdirection is good. Sometimes I’m processing my inbox too fast and need to re-exhume a message. In the archive, they’re out of sight which accomplishes my user goal of inbox zero, but still searchable in case I ever need them. Gmail successfully used Misdirection, drawing my attention to archiving instead of deleting.

And a final example… Have you ever signed up for a free trial and had your credit card silently start getting charged without any warning after the free trial ends? That’s the dark pattern of Forced Continuity. When we design products, we typically want to drive more engagement and make interactions more real-time, such that our devices are now constantly buzzing with notifications. Research has shown that the ability to focus and get into a flow state for deep work is extremely valuable, but there’s so much temptation to toggle over to your email or Slack window whenever a notification comes through. In response, time management apps like Pomodoro Timers help you countdown your work into 25 minute chunks, Dewo mutes your notifications and analyzes when you get into the flow, and Freedom straight up blocks the internet other than allowed applications for up to 8 hours. These apps use Forced Continuity’s pattern of silently taking action to help you block out distraction. It’s Forced Discontinuity, a dark pattern turned good.

By no means am I advocating for dark patterns to be used for evil, but I challenge everyone to think about how dark patterns’ powers of persuasion can be used for good. I’ve shared a few examples of how digital products can be inspired by dark patterns and use them for good. There are many more dark patterns and a great place to find descriptions and explore Hall of Shame examples is at . Learn from dark patterns on how to influence the behaviors that you want to see, and apply them to drive users towards better achieving their goals. Our behavioral shift to accept scratch paper has been working so well, that we’ve now expanded our “scratch paper” to include a bin of recyclable materials that can be used for larger art projects!

Art bin of recyclable materials

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Lauren Chan Lee is a product leader who enjoys writing about the connections between product principles and everyday life. Learn more at: