Form Ethics Series: Dark Patterns and Questions Designed to Trick You


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What’s one of the best ways to be ethical with your forms? Don’t trick your users into doing something they don’t want to do or don’t realize they’re doing.
Sounds obvious, right? If you said yes, then congratulations! You must be an ethical business professional. But forms that trick users are more common than you might think. Read on to learn exactly how form questions can be used to mislead people.
That way you can recognize them when you’re filling out forms and stop yourself if you find that you’re using deceptive practices in your forms.

Dark Patterns: A Fantastic Source of Form Ethics Information

Today’s ethical form dilemma comes to you from Dark Patterns, one of the leading sources of information about unethical website and form design. Dark Patterns has plenty of examples of websites using elements of web design and layout to deliberately mislead users and influence them to take an action that they might not otherwise.
form ethics 1

What is a Trick Question?

According to Dark Patterns, a trick question is a question that “when glanced upon quickly appears to ask one thing, but if read carefully, asks another thing entirely.” Trick questions take advantage of people’s tendency to skim through web pages instead of reading every word.
It’s estimated that people only scroll about halfway through pages and only read about 20 percent of the text on the page.
Dark Patterns lists several different examples of trick questions on their websites. Here are some big ones to look out for:

  • In our first form ethics post, we talked about a form that required users to check a box if they didn’t want to be an organ donor. (Not surprisingly, organ donor rates increased after this form was implemented because few people realized that they had to take an action to avoid signing up as an organ donor.) Dark Patterns presents an example where Costco used a similar tactic by requiring users to check a box to opt out of email communications.
  • It’s pretty reasonable to assume that one click on a form will result in one outcome, right? An example from a Craigslist-like site called shows a website where one click causes two things to happen: it both activates an ad and makes you pay $5 to promote it.
  • Forms are the last place that you should be confusing. Dark Patterns provides an example of a trick question on an MBNA credit card signup form. Instead of a simple opt-in checkbox for communications, the form includes two statements:
    • “Please don’t contact me” (with two checkboxes that read “By post” and “By phone”)
    • “Please do contact me” (with two checkboxes that read “By email” and “By text message”)

These options don’t make it clear how to avoid receiving communications, and in fact, seem to say that you’ll receive communications no matter what you click or don’t click.


Where Does Your Responsibility Lie?

So what? You might be asking. None of these examples cause the users harm or cost a large amount of money, so what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that marketers and business people have ethical standards to uphold, and any company that ignores these has the potential to make the whole profession look bad.
Let’s take a look at the Statement of Ethics from the American Marketing Association. The AMA, established in 1937 and now up to around 30,000 members, can safely be considered an authority in the marketing world.
The AMA’s Statement of Ethics begins with the following text regarding the conduct of marketing professionals:

“Do no harm. This means consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards and adhering to all applicable laws and regulations in the choices we make.
“Foster trust in the marketing system. This means striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication, and delivery of distribution.
“Embrace ethical values. This means building relationships and enhancing consumer confidence in the integrity of marketing by affirming these core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship.”
(Statement of Ethics, AMA)

Looking at trick questions in forms through the lens of this ethics code, it’s pretty clear that they don’t count as ethical behavior. Sure, they might allow you to get more people to sign up for your emails or purchase something you’re selling, but in the long run, they could undermine your credibility.
Who knows? An ethically questionable form could even result in you becoming an example of what not to do on


Even if you think there aren’t consequences to using trick questions on your customers, it’s better to avoid them if you’re unsure. Read more of our posts on ethical forms, and share your comments below or on Twitter!

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