A Not-So-Simple Question About Subscription Anxiety

Kerry Crawford
In this multi-part series, UX researcher Kerry Crawford tries to figure out whether having cancellation info in advance makes users feel more confident about signing up for recurring payments.

If you’ve listened to a podcast, used the internet, or just existed in the year of our lord 2023, you’ve probably been bombarded with ads for companies offering to make your life easier by setting you up with subscriptions for everything from TV streaming to kitty litter. Chances are, you’ve signed up for at least one subscription, if not more.

I don’t consider myself much of a subscriber, but a quick glance at last month’s bank statement shows that I pay for:

  • Ten services (including streaming TV and music, news sites, podcasts and a fitness app)
  • Five monthly charitable donations
  • One physical product (fancy prescription food for my elderly dog)

And, I pay for all of them every month without a single thought. The money magically disappears from my account and I can watch what I want, support causes I care about and make sure my dog is fed without much effort.

Automation is not without anxiety.

Setting up recurring payments - whether for physical products, services or charitable donations - can make life a lot easier. By subscribing, you can run fewer errands, save time, and in some cases, save money on things you regularly buy.

There's real anxiety around setting recurring payments, and how easy it can be to forget that you have them. There are now multiple apps devoted to helping people find, manage and cancel subscriptions. And, it’s becoming common for companies that offer subscriptions to tout “cancel anytime” like it’s a unique feature.

From a business perspective, glossing over cancellation info makes sense. Organizations require money, and it’s in their best interest to not remind a customer who is considering a purchase that one day, they might want to stop paying.

I did some quick convenience polling on social media to see what people most want to know before signing up for a recurring purchase. Out of the 20 responses I got, 12 mentioned wanting to know about cancellation.

  • “How hard is it to quit? Can I pause the service and restart for the same fee?”
  • “How easy is it to cancel? What's the cancellation policy? This stands out to me because of places that make it difficult to cancel or will tell you you've cancelled and still get billed.”
  • “[I want to know the] cancellation process and whether they email a reminder before a shipment so I can edit the order or push the date out. I definitely want automated cancellation - I don’t want to have to talk or chat to confirm a cancellation.”

It’s almost like people have been burned by cancellation policies before.

Why the bad vibes?

It could be that there are dark patterns that frequently show up in purchase funnels. These sneaky little bits of design trickery can cause users to do something they don’t want or mean to do.

In purchase funnels, dark patterns can include hidden costs, preventing users from comparing prices, automatically charging credit cards at the end of free trials, and - my personal favorite - the roach motel (as in, you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave).

This led to a question. (Ok, a lot of questions.)

What happens when people are given information about cancellation before setting up a recurring purchase? Are they more likely to do it?

And unsurprisingly, that question led to more questions. Like, a lot more questions, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • If they don’t have any information about cancellation when making a purchase, what do they do? Make a one time purchase? Set up recurring anyway? Do nothing at all?
  • Do users’ needs change depending on whether they’re setting up a recurring delivery of a physical good (like dog food), a subscription service (like Netflix) or a recurring charitable donation?
  • Do people only want to know about cancellation? Is it important to show information about modifying, skipping or pausing recurring purchases?

What might be going on?

Let’s start with the first question: If people have adequate cancellation information during sign up, are they more likely to set up recurring purchases?

I have a hunch that in order to feel confident making a recurring purchase, people want to be reassured - even in some small way - that they will be able to cancel it.

As users, we’ve developed expectations about how subscriptions should work. We assume that we’ll have an account that we can manage. We assume that we’ll be able to cancel. But are those assumptions enough to make people feel confident making recurring purchases?

Hypothesis: What someone would need to know about cancellation during sign up (and how the info is presented) would change depending on whether they’re buying a physical product, setting up a subscription service or making a charitable donation because our mental models of those things are different.

How do we find out if that’s true?

To start, I’m going to do UX reviews of 10 consumer goods, 10 consumer services, and 10 charities that offer recurring purchases or donations.

I want to see what patterns exist and how different types of organizations present cancellation information in the purchase funnel. I want to see how confident I feel about going through with a purchase based on the information I’m given during sign up.

As for what happens from there, I’m not sure yet - maybe some prototype testing with actual people, maybe some interviews with the companies I’m looking at or with ecommerce experts, maybe something else entirely. The plan is to follow the questions and see where I wind up.