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Canceling Online Subscriptions Is Confusing, Difficult and Absurd... by Design

Many companies use tactics called "dark patterns" to make it difficult to cut ties.

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Online services need to stop trying to trap customers by making it outrageously difficult to cancel a subscription.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Online subscriptions are usually pretty easy to sign up for. But you may have noticed they're not always so easy to cancel. And the Byzantine unsubscribe processes I've had to go through to get out of services I no longer want are often not just poor customer service or an unwieldy user experience. It's by design.

My wife and I recently decided to try an online meal kit. The concept seemed great: You open the box, maybe you cut up an onion or a potato or something, mix all the stuff together in a pan and in about 30 minutes you've got a restaurant-quality family dinner on your table. 

With our busy schedules and an excitable toddler bouncing around the house, we thought it would be a perfect solution to our nightly "what should we do for dinner" discussion. We were happy with the service for the most part -- the food was excellent and it really was super easy to make, but ultimately it wasn't for us, so we decided to cancel the service. The process should be pretty straightforward, right? 

Wrong.     

Canceling the service turned out to be more convoluted and bewildering than trying to navigate your way through a house of mirrors. I was herded through one of the most ridiculous cancellation funnels I've ever seen -- surveys, guilt trips, oversized green buttons prompting me to stay on board and tiny gray cancellation confirmation links that I had to scroll seemingly endlessly to find. 

But after about a 15-minute ordeal, I finally succeeded in my quest to cancel the subscription -- until the next day, when my wife got an email informing her that our next delivery was being prepared and that we'd be charged for it imminently. As it turned out, there was one final little gray link I had to click on, hidden away at the bottom of one of the pages. Even after securing our freedom, we were subjected to a barrage of emails begging us to come back. 

In the end, the cancellation process took two days to complete. It was confusing, difficult, absurd. And it was by design. It's a common tactic that too many online services are employing these days. It's just one of many examples of what has become known online as a dark pattern -- a tactic used by online services to intentionally trick users into taking certain actions -- and it needs to stop. 

Canceling should be as easy as signing up

The truth is, it doesn't need to be this difficult to cancel a subscription. The customer experience would improve and these online services might earn a better reputation if their offboarding processes didn't resort to these tactics. Everyone would be better off. 

Rather than resorting to questionable practices and alienating customers in the cancellation process, companies should focus on being transparent and building a sense of trust. Customers should have full control over the cancellation process, which should be clearly defined and devoid of unnecessary barriers. The language throughout the process should be non-judgmental and should communicate clearly what the customer can expect going forward -- specifically in terms of any applicable refund, how their data will be handled, how they can export their data and how they can sign back up in the future if needed. 

This is the ethical way to do it, and it's how some companies, like streaming giant Netflix and online collaboration platform Basecamp, already operate. Companies that take this route prove that canceling a subscription doesn't have to be a nightmare -- the experience can be just as friendly and manageable as signing up, and can go a long way in establishing trust with other customers.

But too many services still apparently believe the dishonest approach is the best way to retain customers.

Welcome to the roach motel

I get it, companies don't want to lose customers. They put a lot of money and resources into building their service, and they want to see a return on those efforts. The thought of losing customers keeps business owners up at night, so they take whatever action they think is necessary to retain as many users as possible. 

But instead of building loyalty and trust, too many online services are relying on something called dark patterns to trick customers into sticking around. Dark patterns are designs and settings intended to get people to do what the company wants, rather than what the person wants. For example, failing to click on the final cancellation confirmation because it's hidden somewhere at the bottom of the page. 

And it's not just the small-time players that are resorting to these tactics. Have you ever tried canceling your Amazon Prime account? Good luck figuring out how to do it -- and actually getting through the process without wanting to tear all your hair out. Want to cancel your New York Times subscription? Make sure you have 8 minutes to spare as you wait for a live chat representative to do it for you. 

This type of dark pattern is sometimes referred to as a roach motel -- a design that makes it easy to sign up for a service but outrageously difficult to cancel that service. The cancellation funnel is typically a multi-step process that includes intentionally confusing language and ambiguous navigation buttons. Companies may also sprinkle in cancellation buttons that say things like "I don't care about losing premium features," or "I don't like saving money," for good measure -- preying on the fear of missing out to keep their customers. Then, once the customer has finally navigated the cancellation funnel, they'll often have to call a phone number or send an email or contact a support agent via chat to finalize the process, adding yet another step to an already lengthy process. 

I understand getting a quick survey to gather insight into the reason for a cancellation or perhaps a quick reminder of some of the service's main benefits. But too often the process is deliberately convoluted and includes elements of intentional deception.  

Dark patterns like this have become such a big problem that state and federal regulators have gotten involved and class action lawsuits have been filed in cases where companies have crossed an ethical line. 

In September 2020, children's online learning platform ABCmouse paid $10 million to settle FTC charges of illegal marketing and billing practices. In its complaint against ABCmouse, the FTC alleged that the company "required consumers to find and navigate a lengthy and confusing cancellation path that repeatedly discouraged consumers from canceling and, in many instances, resulted in consumers being billed again without their consent."

Popular weight loss app Noom recently settled a class-action lawsuit for $62 million, based on similarly deceptive practices. The six-count complaint alleged that Noom actively misrepresented and failed to "accurately disclose the true characteristics of its trial period, its automatic enrollment policy, and the actual steps customers need to follow in attempting to cancel a 14-day trial and avoid automatic enrollment." Noom provided no phone number, no email address or mailing address, and no way for customers to cancel their trials through its app or website, except through a chat bot that directed them to cancel in the App Store or Google Play Store.

Despite all the complaints, lawsuits and settlements, companies still employ roach motel dark patterns to trap their customers. But the more you know about these tactics, the easier they are to escape.       

Understanding dark patterns is the key to avoiding them

Until companies begin to realize the negative effects of their deceptiveness, or until lawsuits and legislation begin making an impact, we'll continue to see companies using dark patterns to make it difficult for us to cancel our online subscriptions. For now, the best thing you can do is know that these practices exist and do your best not to fall into their traps. Know what you're getting into before you subscribe to a service. If the service you're considering doesn't make that clear, move along and find something else.

And when it's time to cancel, know what to look for: multi-step cancellation processes that will probably ask you to email, call or both to finalize the cancellation. Don't stop until you get a message confirming that your subscription has been canceled. 

Perhaps if that meal kit service my wife and I tried didn't go to ridiculous lengths to try and trick us into staying on board, we would have given it another shot at some point in the future. But because the service was so hard to cancel, I'm not going back to it or recommending it to others. In the meantime, we've already signed up with a different online meal kit service. I'm hopeful this time will be different and they won't make us jump through 36 different hoops if or when we decide to cancel.