Part 2: Exploitative strategies

There are lots of different ways you can consider the underlying psychology and principles behind deceptive patterns. A good starting point is to think of them as the result of an exploitative business strategy. In other words, instead of a business thinking of its users as partners who should be cooperated with to reach mutual success (‘Their success is our success’), the business thinks of its users as a commodity to be exploited (‘Their weakness is our opportunity’). Another aspect of the exploitative mindset is the business’s attitude towards law: rather than seeing it as a system to be respected, the law might be seen as a game to be played, where loopholes and grey areas can be identified and exploited for profit.

Table comparing exploitative and cooperative design strategies. Exploitative strategies can be described as ‘Your weakness is our opportunity’. The attitude to users is framed as ‘User as commodity’ and ‘Vulnerabilities exploited for profit’. The attitude to the law is framed as ‘Law as  game to be played’ and ‘Loopholes as growth opportunity’. This can result in ‘Deceptive patterns’. Cooperative strategies can be described as ‘Your success is our success’. The attitude to users is framed as ‘User as human’ and ‘Vulnerabilities supported with care’. The attitude to the law is framed as ‘Law as system to be respected’ and ‘Loopholes as pitfalls to avoid’. This can result in ‘User-centred patterns’.
A comparison between exploitative and cooperative design strategies.

If we look at it in a simplistic way, exploitative strategies are often going to be more effective than cooperative strategies because they sidestep the need to let users make an informed choice. It’s a bit like wondering whether a fishing net is going to be more effective than just asking fish to jump into your boat. The fishing net is a trap, similar to a deceptive pattern. If you impede a user’s ability to make an informed choice, or if you hinder their decision-making by hiding facts or by giving misleading information, then you effectively capture or lock in the user against their will (though they may not realise it at the time owing to a lack of clearly stated information).

Generally, businesses do not admit to themselves that they are using exploitative strategies. If a business focuses on growth and measured outcomes, it can slip into an exploitative mindset without realising it. Euphemisms are also very...

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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.