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'We received your payment' -the dark pattern of forced continuity on the web

and how companies might get away with it

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Just got an SMS yesterday that my credit card was charged with $96 USD, though I haven’t remembered ordering anything in particular that day and my monthly subscription fees are smaller amounts, just a couple of bucks for google drive, apple cloud etc, the usual stuff. When I checked the message and saw that the place of the transaction is ‘SAN FRANCISCO GET’ I knew that it is happening again.

The first time it happened to me was an Amazon Prime ‘Sneak into Basket’ dark pattern trick, back in 2013. I started to use some Amazon service and got the Prime subscription as an additional one, as it turned out later it was mentioned somewhere at the terms and conditions maybe, that renewal of the membership is automatic. „Your Amazon Prime membership will automatically renew at the end of each term unless you choose not to continue.” Somewhere deep inside I guess, probably with a pretty small light text, but it was there.

Of course I contacted Amazon and the customers service representative wrote me an apology letter (I’m wondering how many did they write those days), ensured me that the money will be refunded immediately. Also sent me a ‘how to guide’ on stopping the automatic subscription renewal.

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This is how it worked back then (copied from the email itself):

“If you don’t want to automatically renew your benefits when your membership expires, click “Your Account” at the top of our homepage and go to the Settings section. There, click “Manage Prime Membership” and sign into your account if prompted. On the following page, click “Do not continue.” I’m sorry this distinction wasn’t clear by the time you signed up for the subscription.”

So it is basically a tutorial on how to prevent this thing from happening again, with a re-login- as if it would be such an essential move that they need to make sure it is me at the desk who want to protect myself from continuous charging and not some unauthorised person. This interface was designed by a user experience designer (was it how we called it back in the days?) make no mistake this thing was intentional. Make the message unseen when subscribing for the service, and make it pretty hard or almost impossible to cancel.

Forced continuity is when a user is asked to give their credit card or payment information for a free trial or a web service/benefit and the supplier hides the ‘subscription renews automatically’ info or makes it very hard to cancel the automatic renewal.

Being careful with sites that ask for credit card information, when starting a free trial might help, but in some cases they even make the interface look to make you sure that cancelling of the trial is free any time by highlighting this info.

On my recent case and in many cases the situation is not easy to prevent or judge as it is happening with a service that you are already paying for and using it for a year. You buy a year subscription and might forget about the service. When the end of the term is near they do not send any notification or reminder like an email, that your subscription is about to expire and you will be charged. They do not let you make your own decision on whether continuing or changing your yearly plan on the service.

If you want to provide an honest and transparent service about subscriptions as a designer, even though your users became your customers and payed for your service once, let them know in advance, that you will charge them at a date nearby. Let them know early so they will be able to make their unforced decision.

A moral compass

You should treat your users as you would like to be treated- when we talk about dark patterns, this should be your moral compass to avoid sneaky situations.

They might get away with it

I had a conversation with an accountant who works for several startups, these startups are using dozens of services. He said that companies using this dark pattern technique occasionally get away with it. Any IT company can have so many subscriptions that if it is a smaller fee like my 96 USD, it might slip. They do not recognise it and the finance department think that ‘it is just another IT thing’ so they let it pass and book the expense. 

Let’s assume that it works 2 times out of 20 and do the maths. At a large company with thousands of clients you will start to understand why they force this kind of ‘business model’.

As I’m finishing this blogpost an email notification popped up in my inbox with the answer on my message about refunding. The company that I’m not intend to name is letting me know how sorry they feel for my inconveniences. At least they were acting fast on correcting the ‘mistake this time, how about going on with re-thinking their business model and interface as a next step :)

  • darkpattern
  • designethics
  • userexperience
  • forcedcontinuity