Dark patterns by example. The inability to cancel the StatusCake service.
This post has two purposes.
I want to help you understand a “dark pattern” in UX design.
I also want to use a real-world example of a dark pattern in active use. This post is inspired by personal experience. I stumbled upon this dark pattern when trying to cancel the auto-renewal of StatusCake, a service I no longer need.
Exposing the use of dark patterns is one of the only ways consumers have to stop these practices.
What is a dark pattern? #
A dark pattern in UX design refers to deceptive or manipulative tactics used in user interfaces to trick or coerce users into taking actions they might not otherwise choose, such as signing up for recurring subscriptions, sharing more personal information than necessary, or navigating through intentionally confusing layouts. Dark patterns can also hinder or prevent users from taking an action, like canceling a service, which is what we’ll look at in the post.
Dark patterns prioritize business goals over user experience.
A dark pattern in use: StatusCake #
StatusCake is a service I’ve used for about three years. At first, I used their free plan and upgraded when I was happy with the service. I chose the “Superior” plan, which is $24.49 monthly or $244.90 annually.
There has been no issue with the service from StatusCake. They effectively monitor my servers for downtime and alert me promptly when there is an issue. But I’ve outgrown my need for their service and wanted to cancel auto-renewal of my StatusCake service.
The cancelation process is where the dark pattern emerged.
A blocked exit is a dark pattern #
When I signed up for a premium tier of StatusCake, I did not need to speak to someone from their team to begin paying for the service. Entering a credit card number and clicking a button or two were all the actions required to upgrade the service.
In general, the entrance behavior suggests to a user how the exit behavior will be handled.
With StatusCake, the exit is more challenging. It requires patience and perseverance on the customer’s part to get out of StatusCake.
StatusCake is not an outlier in this practice. Many online services do this. It’s far to common.
Let’s look at the StatusCake dark pattern in detail.
Blocked exit #1: Cancel button #
In the StatusCake control panel, you’ll find an Account Settings menu item which contains a Billing option. In the screenshot below, you’ll see the Billing page. You’ll see the subscriptions are has two options, Change and Cancel.
Since my goal was the cancel the recurring subscription, the Cancel button seemed like the most valid choice here. Since I signed up by clicking a button and filling out a form, I expected that I could click a button and go through an self-serve process to cancel the service. But that’s not the case.
Instead of following through with the user’s request, a chat box pops up with a pre-defined message of, “I’d like to discuss cancelling my account, please can you help?”
What’s the dark pattern here?
The button clearly says, Cancel, not Discuss cancelation.
Sending the pre-defined message does not cancel the service. The process requires the user to negotiate a way out. How long will this negotation take? What if you have limited time? If you don’t reach someone in time does this obligate you to further payments?
🚫 This is a blocked exit.
In my case, I sent the message and was then notified it would be 30+ minutes before someone would get back to me. After an hour, noone responded. I finally added another message to the chat saying that I wanted to cancel the auto-renewal but had to step away from the computer. I left clear instruction to complete the cancelation and left the window open for the next 72 hours, over a weekend. I received no response.
Perhaps I was not tenatious enough. After all, this is not my first day at the internet rodeo. 🤠 Maybe there is another way out here.
Blocked exit #2: Change button #
The control panel also includes a Change button. Could this is the way out? Hope springs eternal!
Clicking the Change button takes you to the Plans page. As you can see from the screenshot, you can change your plan up here. Since I’m already at the “Superior” plan, I upgrading to a higher tier happens with a click of a button. Click and and you’re upgraded.
But what about changing to the free Community tier? Being on the free teir would also accomplish the task of stopping the auto-renewal charges, right?
Let’s click the Select Plan button in the Community plan description area and find out.
Just like the first attempt at cancelation, instead of following through with the user’s intended action, the chat support box pops up instead.
The pre-defined message in the chat window is slightly altered to read, “I’d like to discuss downgrading my account to the free tier, can you help?” The button’s label says “Select Plan.” It does not say, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee and discuss your feelings about the plan you’re considering.”
🚫 This is another blocked exit.
Exit #3: Remove the on-file credit card #
I was not ready to give up yet. Maybe there was another way out that I’d not concidered.
StatusCake bills through Stripe, so perhaps I could simply remove my credit card information from the billing system which would also accomplish my goal. You can probably guess what happened.
The ability to remove a credit card on file with Stripe is tied to status of the subscription. Since the subscription has not been canceled, Stripe will not remove the credit card on file.
This means if you don’t solve the subscription problem with the merchant, you’re going to be charged.
The resolution #
After the initial 72 hours of waiting without a responce, I tried the Cancel button once again. This time the automated reply said I would only have to wait around 15 minutes to “discuss cancelling my account.”
Within that time frame, I was able to chat with a real person to get the autorenewal stopped for my subscription. As the chat wrapped up, I shared my frustration at the cancelation process and was thanked for my feedback.
Share your experiences #
Have you encountered similar dark patterns in UX? Make some noise. These dark patterns unethical but profitable. Profit usually wins. Document what you see and share it with others. You can do this on a blog, like I have here. Or use the social media platform you prefer.
Exposing of these user-antagonistic practices is what matters. Sharing your experiences helps tip companies into the right direction.
You’re not just venting your frustrations into the void. You’re contributing to changing bad behavior.
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