Chapter 22: Harm to individuals

Financial loss

There are a number of ways a user can suffer financially from deceptive patterns. They might be tricked into making a purchase they didn’t intend (sneaking), or they might struggle to cancel a subscription and pay for extra periods without wanting to (hard to cancel). They may also be charged extra fees at the last minute that they did not expect (hidden costs). In a survey of over 2,000 British adults, UK advocacy group Citizens Advice found that respondents lost £50–100 a year on unwanted subscriptions they should not have been charged for.1

Another way to look at the scale of financial loss is to look at legal case outcomes, since the size of a fine or settlement typically corresponds with the scale of the financial harm to consumers. At the time of writing, the website lists roughly fifty cases where the outcome involves fines or settlements, some of which run into tens of millions of dollars.2

Time loss

Everyone has a finite amount of time alive, and deceptive patterns often serve to take it away unfairly. This can happen by making actions difficult (hard to cancel, for instance), by purposefully depleting user’s time in order to wear them down (resource depletion), or by making users jump through hoops before they can rectify the outcomes of deceptive patterns, like claiming a refund.

The FTC takes time loss seriously. In a 2022 complaint against credit services company Credit Karma, the FTC argued that Credit Karma’s false claims meant ‘numerous consumers wasted significant time applying for credit card offers’. They reached a settlement including $3 million in consumer redress, a commitment to stop deceiving consumers, and to preserve design and research records for future investigations.

Unintended contracts

If a user purportedly enters a legal agreement without being aware that it exists (sneaking), then they may be surprised when the business tries to tie them into it.3 For example, a mandatory arbitration clause might take away the user’s ability to take the business to court...

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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.