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Getting Users’ Long-Term Commitment with a Monthly Charge

| 13 min read

There’s a trend which takes the use of products from companies such as Adobe and Microsoft from single-purchase goods owned by the consumer to monthly subscriptions. Unlike most dark patterns, this one does not necessarily trick users into agreeing with a system of recurring payments, but simply coerces or manipulates them instead. If they don’t agree, the product may become more expensive, or downright unavailable. But this pattern isn’t just for software producers. Read all about the possibilities of monthly charges, enforcing them for different contexts, and adapting them so as to help foster users’ trust.

The monthly charge design pattern is exactly what the name suggests: it is a scheme of monthly payments. That is not a dark pattern in itself, but it definitely has the potential to be. Just think about the monthly payments you still make to the gym where you haven’t been in the last couple of months. You wanted that subscription and consciously made the decision to take it – at least, you did once, back then, at a time when every waking moment wasn’t spent rushing about being busy... like you are now. You even thought it would give you some extra motivation to work out, didn’t you? Then, somehow, matters got ahead of you and dropped too much of this thing called ‘life’ into your lap, and you started feeling bogged down. Now, for some reason, cancelling your subscription when you don’t use it anymore seems like too much effort or too low in priority to get done. And that is exactly what companies are hoping for when they force you to take a subscription—when they could just sell you a product or service once and be satisfied with that, and perhaps some nice words of feedback from you after a few weeks or so.

“Car sickness is the feeling you get when the monthly payment is due.”
— (Anonymous)

In 2011, Harry Brignull, a user experience consultant and dark pattern specialist, described a previous user interface design from Oxfam—the world-famous Oxford, England-based international confederation of charitable organizations that focus on alleviating poverty across the planet—in which the radio button for 'regular monthly donation' is automatically selected instead of the 'single donation' option. Since then, however, Oxfam has removed this option completely, forcing users into committing to a long-term donation unless they go to the trouble of cancelling the direct debit. In mid-2017, someone searching the Oxfam site will not be able to find any possible way of making a single donation; instead, getting tied into a monthly direct debit of a specified amount is the ‘done thing’. Some may argue using this dark pattern in this particular instance is permissible (as it helps a non-profit organization fight injustices that cause poverty); nevertheless, it removes the choice from users simply to make a one-off payment and forces them into an arrangement they might not be happy with. That’s where an interesting paradox might arise whereby users of modest means, having committed to a number of these charities that use this mechanism, may end up sliding into a slight degree of poverty themselves because they were so committed to battling hardships faced by fellow human beings. Yes, it might just be a handful of dollars here and there, but the principle is important. In addition, it places the onus on users to cancel future payments, as opposed to simply making donations as and when they please. There is no trickery involved in this pattern, but the user is coerced or manipulated into making a long-term series of donations.

Author/Copyright holder: Oxfam International. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.

The Oxfam website, shown here, doesn’t offer the option to give a one-off donation, but forces the user to commit to a monthly bank transfer. A social conscience and the use of free will in helping others are commendable things; however, when they are caged into a long-term commitment, it can be quite off-putting and understandably so.

Other companies are also using the monthly charge option as the only way for users to obtain products or services that previously were available with a single purchase. Examples that you may be familiar with from your work as a designer are the Adobe Creative Cloud and the Microsoft Online Services. These companies used to sell software packages to clients, who purchased these goods that they would then own and be able to access from their own local devices whenever they needed. The trend has since witnessed a shift towards subscriptions. This shifts the relationship from that of ‘seller/buyer’ as such to one of, essentially, ‘leaser/renter’—the notion of the transferral of ownership via one transaction has succumbed to the granting of the right to use... for a monthly charge. Another example is the Yoga Today website (which we wholeheartedly recommend to any designer who is sitting at his or her desk for hours on end), which used to enable single purchases of yoga videos to download, and then began forcing a monthly subscription to gain access to streaming videos. Other examples of this dark pattern can be found online when signing up for memberships to online gaming communities and cashback groups.

Author/Copyright holder: Adobe. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.

Adobe is one of many software companies that have changed from selling users a product, to selling them a subscription. By doing so, they force users to pay on a monthly basis and prevent them from owning what they pay for. We seem to live in the epoch of the Permanent Renter.

Why is this classed as a dark pattern?

Users have no choice but to accept they will be tied into making monthly donations. The removal of choice forces a user's hand, and he or she must put the effort into cancelling those monthly payments. This method is employed by a number of websites, in the hope users will either forget or not bother ending their direct debit. Put like that, it shows this practice for what it is—not ‘serving’ customers, at least not in the traditional sense of selling them something, but more like retaining them in the name of convenience. It seems quite cynical and ‘sneaky’; some might call it ‘fighting dirty’. Frankly, one could say it ‘stinks’, but it’s legal and many organizations are caught up in it. We have to face it—many companies are behaving as if they were banks, trying to manipulate their usership into doggedly going along with whatever they demand. At any rate, while the phenomenon of the monthly charge seems to be spreading through the market like a spring tide, the idea underscoring it stems somewhat from an older principle.

On this note, let’s cast our minds over to products in the physical world and consider a phenomenon called ‘planned obsolescence’. You might think of cars that are engineered to start falling apart at the 100,000-mile mark... or fridges that last ten years and then mysteriously ‘die’. All those miles as well as ten years may represent a good long life; however, what if a company were to build an appliance or a vehicle really well—at least to the point that its demise didn’t have to occur just after the warranty expired? Sure, parts do wear out, and materials degrade through use and storage conditions; that’s life. What if, though, with the right level of care and perfect maintenance, machines, built to old-fashioned standards of high-quality workmanship and truly durable materials, were to keep going for many decades? The truth is, as we may already know, their manufacturers would get upset. For instance, car dealerships want you back in, either for an upgrade to a more ‘executive’ model or for the chance to buy back that brand-new car you bought last year, for a ridiculous price. Speaking of ridiculous prices, charging a ridiculous price would probably be how many companies would react if they knew they had to leave you alone after a single transaction.

How to Be a Successful but Nice ‘Monthly Vampire’

With this in mind, let’s look at software firms and organizations that call for donations. Time was, you purchased a software package and you had it ‘in the bag’—a one-shot deal. But the trend is for software companies to seek any way they can to avoid one-shot deals; they want to keep hold of you—at least, they want to keep their fangs in your current account for a dependable, reliable, regular supply. The blatant fact is that something has happened (perhaps involving greed and cynicism) that has drastically altered the balance in the customer-merchant relationship. For instance, just because you bought a CD-ROM from a company in 2001, it doesn’t make you a valued customer two decades on. You could justly complain that they should be grateful you bought anything from them in the past—the real deal is, though, the game plan has changed, and you may well find yourself working for one of these firms, and sooner rather than later. If you’re bold enough to bring this up as a subject, you may hear them moan and entreat, “Well, we have to make a living.”—which is a fair point, but one that we have to take with a grain of salt in this context. Still, as we must make a living as designers, too, we can hardly challenge our clients. If we want our paychecks and reputations intact, we’ll have to play along, at least to some degree.

As a responsible designer, you may ask yourself if there is any way that you can implement this design pattern with care, so as to give clients what they want without negatively impacting the lives of your users. The only way to implement the dark pattern that your client wants so badly—but without forcing your users to cough up the money over and over again—is to make the option to unsubscribe as transparent and easy as possible. If you make it as simple as a single click of a button, and keep it in plain sight, users might realize they can take charge of their own expenses again. If a client questions you on this, you could truthfully defend that showing this option will help let patrons view the organization in a favorable light as an ethical entity. As designers, we’re a creative breed—given that, who is to say we can’t influence the currents of e-commerce with ingenious and resourceful creations? We can but try.

The Take Away

As companies are moving from downloadable single purchases to online subscriptions, the monthly charge design pattern continues to become more and more popular. It is a dark pattern, because it coerces users to subscribe. Without a subscription, the service of a product is unavailable. As it’s comparable to a gym subscription, users are likely to forget about cancelling it, especially when they don’t use it anymore. And this is just what these companies are hoping for, to create a continuous revenue stream—an empire partly built on cynical assumptions. In our careers, these sorts of clients will almost certainly turn up. While mutinying against them isn’t an option, designing conscientiously and creatively is, and you may just notice yourself helping both a client and the users because you put control back into the latter’s hands.

References & Where to learn More

Jenifer Tidwell, Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design, 2010

Martijn van Welie, Pattern Library, 2008

Harry Brignull’s website dedicated to dark patterns

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Pixabay. Copyright terms and license: CC0.

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