Reoccuring billing, and forgetfulness as a dark pattern | May 1, 2018

Five years ago my company was pitching for a newspaper project, so I decided to sign up for a bunch of newspaper subscriptions, including the Times. I was really impressed with the thought and consideration that had gone into both their Web offering and iPad app, so used it constantly for about a month. Once the pitch had finished, I stopped using the service, and my attention drifted elsewhere.

Today, I received a threatening email from the Times saying that my last payment hadn’t gone through and if I didn’t do something about it, they were ominously going to “take action”. I immediately felt a knot in my stomach. Had I accidentally been paying for the subscription all this time? How could I have not known? I felt stupid, I felt gullible, I felt angry and betrayed.

It would be easy to blame me for my own stupidity, and a do take a good deal of responsibility. After all, shouldn’t I be checking my bank statements each month for erroneous payments? I’m sure a lot of people do this with their personal accounts, but I genuinely struggle to find the time. It’s even harder with company accounts. With so many transactions are going though each month, it’s easy to miss small anomalies. Especially when the person managing the accounts isn’t the person making the payments. When this happens, associations easily get divorced.

For the majority of online services I use, this isn’t a problem. I’ll sign up with an email address and be sent a handy invoice or billing reminder each time money is taken. This lets me know that I’m still a subscriber, and reminds me to use the service and get the value I’m paying for.

This wasn’t the case with my Times subscription. They kept dutifully taking money from my account once a month, without informing me this was happening. Understanding that memory is fallible, it’s inevitable that people will eventually forget some of the subscriptions they’ve signed up for, and without these billing reminders, people like myself will find themselves accidentally paying for services long after they’ve stopped being useful.

It’s entirely possible that this was simply an oversight from the Times, and there was no malicious intent. However it’s interesting to think that of the two possible approaches—remind or don’t remind—the former massively favours the customer as it prevents them from forgetting subscriptions, while the latter hugely favours the company as they constantly get to extract money from people who have accidentally forgotten their subscription, and would otherwise cancel. So you can’t help but wonder whether an ambitious product manager made a deliberate decision to avoid subscription reminders, in an attempt to maximise revenue.

Even if this was a genuine oversight, and not a deliberate dark pattern, I cannot be the first person to have forgotten they were paying for a service they weren’t using. Especially with the increasingly ageing population of Times readers. As such, I suspect the customer service team must get a handful of such calls each week, if not each day.

Oh, did I mentioned that the only way to unsubscribe was by phone, despite being able to sign up online. This is another well known dark pattern. Making it super easy to subscribe to something, but relatively hard to unsubscribe. As such. I’m sure a good portion of people phoning up to unsubscribe get fed up waiting 15 to 20 minutes for an answer, decided they’d phone back another time, then dutifully forgot again.

Being a known problem, this would be a relatively simple thing to fix. For instance, you could send customers a gentle reminder on the anniversary of their subscription. That way, if customers were to forget, this would give them an opportunity to re-enguage with your service, or cancel if they no longer wanted to use you.

A more sophisticated approach would be to notice that people hadn’t logged in after a set time, like 3 months, and put peoples accounts on hold. This is a really nice approach as it shows a duty of care to your customers, while still keeping the option open that they’ll re-enguage.

Of course this all depends on having the will to make these improvements, especially if the result could mean a drop in income. So for many companies it’s just more convenient—and more profitable—to ignore these edge cases and keep taking money from people you know no longer use your service. To that end, it feels like the fallibility of human memory is a dark pattern many companies are using for their own benefit.

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