Chapter 16: Misdirection

Misdirection, like most types of deception, has been practised throughout human history. Whether by a pickpocket, a stage magician, or through the design of a user interface, the principles remain the same:1

‘Simply stated, misdirection is the psychological technique used to lead or manipulate the spectators’ and volunteers’ eyes and minds to see what the magician wants them to. Their attention is focused in one direction while the trick is worked elsewhere. Misdirection is not pointing and saying “Look at that!” and then doing something sneaky in the opposite direction. That is a crude form of misdirection that does not work well, nor does it leave a good impression with the audience. The techniques used by good magicians are subtle and sophisticated. So much so that the people in the audience never know they have been manipulated.’
— Eddie Joseph (1992) How to Pick Pockets for Fun and Profit

The confirmshaming deceptive pattern

The term ‘confirmshaming’ was popularised by an anonymous blogger who started the confirmshaming tumblr blog in 2016.2

Confirmshaming is the use of emotional manipulation to misdirect users, and to push them into opting into something (or opting out of something else).3 For example, the option to decline may be worded in such a way as to shame you into compliance – you feel so bad about saying no, you end up choosing yes. The most common use of confirmshaming is in mailing list dialogs that pop up when you arrive on a site or via some other trigger.

Confirmshaming by Sears

Here, the retailer Sears uses emotional manipulation and wordplay by labelling the marketing email opt out button, ‘No thanks, I hate free money’. This is an archetypal example of confirmshaming. After all, Sears is not offering free money. It is inviting the user to subscribe to a mailing list that will give them a $10 discount on a purchase with Sears.4

Screenshot of Sears’ website offering a $10 discount if a user signs up for marketing. The option to accept the offer is a button labelled ‘Sign me up’, and to decline is a button labelled ‘No thanks, I hate free money’.
Confirmshaming user interface from Sears in 2017.

Confirmshaming by MyMedic

This example was discovered by Per Axbom. He referred to it as ‘the worst example of #confirmshaming I’ve been subjected to.’5 MyMedic sells first aid packs and medical supplies. In asking permission for its website to send you notifications, the opt-out link label is presented as ‘no, I don’t want to stay alive’. This is particularly troubling given that some of its target customers are people likely to be exposed to the trauma of accidents and death in their work.6

Screenshot of MyMedic website notifications interface. Under the text ‘MyMedic would like to send you notifications. You’ll be notified about the latest tips, sales, and discounts, so you and everyone you know can stay alive’ is a blue button labelled ‘Allow’ (to the right). To the left is the option to decline: grey text reading ‘no, I don’t want to stay alive’.
Confirmshaming user interface from MyMedic in August 2021.

The visual interference deceptive pattern

This deceptive pattern involves hiding content that a user might reasonably expect to be shown on the page. There are several ways to do this.

Visual interference by Trello: pushing users into the expensive ‘Business Class’ subscription

In January 2021, an anonymous twitter user (@ohhellohellohii) pointed out a deceptive pattern being used by Trello in its sign-up user journey.7 If you’re not familiar with Trello, it’s a collaboration tool that lets teams of people view ‘cards’ of information on a digital board, often used by creative teams. At a glance, a Trello board shows you what’s being worked on and who’s doing the work.8

Screenshot from Twitter showing a tweet from user @ohhellohellohii, who tweets ‘@darkpatterns this one nearly got me. @trello really wants you to use their free trial… the start without is juuust below your view’. Below the tweet is a screenshot of the Trello website showing (on the left) the sign-up form with Business Class subscription, and (on the right) the same page but revealing the link to sign up without subscribing to Business Class below what appears to be the bottom of the page.
Twitter user @ohhellohellohii complains to Trello about their use of visual interference.

Trello is well known for having a free-to-use plan, which gives people the chance to trial and adopt the platform with a fairly generous allowance of projects and storage space. It’s one of the reasons why Trello became popular: people started using it for free, grew to love it, and then upgraded to paid plans. In 2017, Trello was bought by tech giant Atlassian for $425 million. However, in January 2021, the Trello product team used a tweaked sign-up experience that appeared to be an attempt to deliver more fee-paying customers on their most expensive plan, ‘Business Class’.

Having clicked an innocent looking ‘Sign up’ button, users were shown a comparison table with three plans: ‘Free Team’, ‘Standard Team’ and ‘Business Class Team’. Instead of giving users the means to pick just one, there was a huge green button that said ‘Start 30-day free trial’. To all intents and purposes, it appeared there was no other option. However, if users had the presence of mind to scroll down past what seemed to be the bottom of the page, they would find a small grey box labelled ‘Start without Business Class’ (pictured below).9

Screenshot from Trello website showing the sign-up link ‘Start without Business Class’ below what appears to be the bottom of the page.
Close up of Trello screenshot provided by Twitter user @ohhellohellohii.

There were a number of related tricks at work here. Let’s take them one by one.

First, there was the issue of hiding a button on the canvas below the bottom of the viewport (aka ‘below the fold’). If users’ browser windows were too small, they wouldn’t see the ‘Start without Business Class’ button at all. This is about user expectations. They’d have no reason to expect such an important button to be hidden way down there, because users trust businesses to build products in a predictable way.

Trello also used other visual tricks. The boundary of the white box appeared to signify the end of the main content area, and it’s a common convention to only place ancillary footer text below this sort of visual divider (like the copyright message and the legalese). In this example, the ‘Start without Business Class’ button was outside the visual bounds of the main content area, employing visual interference and violating user expectations again.

Finally, we have the difference in visual prominence of the buttons themselves. The ‘Start 30-day free trial’ button was colourful and high contrast, whereas the ‘Start without Business Class’ button was muted and low contrast. In fact, it didn’t look like a button at all, and it certainly didn’t invite users to click it.

At this point, it’s also worth saying that if a business takes advantage of visual perception, then it unfairly targets people with visual impairments since they don’t have the visual acuity necessary to perceive small or low-contrast text. However, it should be noted that people with serious visual impairments may employ assistive technologies like Apple VoiceOver, a screen reader application that reads pages aloud using a voice synthesiser, and therefore visual deception does not occur.10

It’s not clear how long Trello kept the offending page live. It may have been an A/B test that was shown to a limited number of people before being discarded. As I write, the sign-up process is now an altogether more honest design:11

Screenshot from Trello website now more clearly telling users they can opt out of the trial of Trello Premium by using a visible button clearly labelled ‘Skip’.
A more honest upsell page by Trello, where the option to opt out of the premium trial (‘Skip’) is shown relatively prominently.

Visual interference by YouTube: a near-invisible close button

‘Freemium’ is a portmanteau, a word that smashes two terms together to create a new, if somewhat clumsy term. If a service is freemium – a combination of ‘free’ and ‘premium’ – then it’s offering a two-tier pricing strategy to consumers. One approach to freemium involves letting users have a free account indefinitely with no contract, but then to persuade those users to upgrade and pay for a premium account that has extra features. It’s become a commonplace online commercial strategy, because – well, who doesn’t want something for free? By having a huge free user-base, the business gets an audience on whom they can test various persuasive tactics.

In January 2021, Twitter user @bigslabomeat pointed out that YouTube was deploying a deceptive pattern that would get users to sign up for a premium free trial.12 As you’ll see, users weren’t given an obvious means to continue with the free tier product. Rather, they needed to take notice of a tiny, low contrast X at the top right of the page, and deduce that tapping the X would then effectively reject the offer of the free trial. A classic example of visual interference.13

Screenshot from Twitter showing a tweet from user @bigolslabomeat, who tweets ‘Getting desperate now? This came up when I opened the @YouTube app. I don’t want premium, I don’t want a trial. I’ve said that at least a hundred times so far, now this without even a close button. Talk about @darkpatterns’. Beneath is a screenshot from YouTube telling users ‘Don’t miss the perks of Premium’ with only a blue button labelled ‘1 month free’. The photo used by YouTube, of a young woman looking at YouTube on a device, is positioned such that her dark hair obscures the X used to close the pop-up (top right) almost completely.
Screenshot of YouTube employing visual interference. The close button X is visually obscured by the model’s hair.

Visual interference by Tesla: non-refundable accidental app purchases

At the end of 2019, Tesla introduced a new feature to its mobile app. Put simply, the updated app let Tesla car owners buy upgrades for their vehicles, such as an autopilot that would unlock ‘Full Self-Driving’ capabilities.14 At over $4,000, these were significant add-ons.

After this feature was introduced, a number of Tesla car owners made it known that they’d made a new feature purchase by mistake, and Tesla was refusing to provide any refunds. Journalist Ted Stein provided an analysis, describing the nature of the techniques used.15 On the payment screen, the wording ‘Upgrades cannot be refunded’ appeared in small, very low contrast dark grey text on a black background, effectively hiding it from users.16

Screenshot from Tesla’s mobile app. Beneath the form asking users to purchase new upgrades is some small dark grey text informing users that ‘Upgrades cannot be refunded’. Against the black background, the text is barely visible.
Tesla’s mobile app refusing refunds on accidental purchases (Stein, 2020).

Tesla customer (and well-known author) Nassim Nicholas Taleb ran into this problem in January 2020 and he asked for a refund. He received a denial from Tesla’s customer support, which he published on Twitter.17 They told him...

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Since 2010, Harry Brignull has dedicated his career to understanding and exposing the techniques that are employed to exploit users online, known as “deceptive patterns” or “dark patterns”. He is credited with coining a number of the terms that are now popularly used in this research area, and is the founder of the website He has worked as an expert witness on a number of cases, including Nichols v. Noom Inc. ($56 million settlement), and FTC v. Publishers Clearing House LLC ($18.5 million settlement). Harry is also an accomplished user experience practitioner, having worked for organisations that include Smart Pension, Spotify, Pearson, HMRC, and the Telegraph newspaper.