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Very often when registering on a new site I see checkboxes with long explanations saying something along the lines of:

Tick checkbox if you want to receive newsletters.

This is not unusual but a trend is on the rise where companies use the opposite. They say:

Tick this checkbox if you 'do not' wish to receive newsletters. It is usually accompanied by a much longer label, catering to the general theory that users will not read the whole thing and just make a decision based on previous experiences with this type of interaction.

Up until a few months ago, I did the same. I would just assume it says 'Tick this checkbox if you DO want'. Now I have to make sure I read it when signing up for anything.

I personally see this as a very naughty, underhanded tactic of adding people to your mailing list, and it causes me to feel mistrust and disdain for the company employing it.

  • Why do they do this - is there any other reason apart from trickery?

  • Doesn't it cause mistrust when users realise or when they receive an email when they clearly thought they said "No, I don't want it"?

  • Why go against the long established and widely understood interaction?

A weak example of this is mamasandpapas.com sign up:

enter image description here

This is a more honest implementation of this concept, by underlining not they have made it slightly more clear, but I assure you there are other sites who make no effort to distinguish it, where the only way of knowing is by reading all three lines to find the plain, unhighlighted 'not'.

A link provided by Dan Neely has an extensive range of examples of variations on this tactic. http://darkpatterns.org/library/trick_questions

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Do you have a practical example of this? Don't think I've ever seen it actually. –  AndroidHustle Oct 3 '13 at 10:23
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I found a little article here concerning it: h2g2.com/approved_entry/A302950 but I can't remember which sites do it off the top of my head. Will update when I come across more sites with this feature. –  user Oct 3 '13 at 10:32
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It's the trick question dark pattern: darkpatterns.org/library/trick_questions –  Dan Neely Oct 3 '13 at 13:10
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Also covered by Jakob Nelsen: nngroup.com/articles/checkboxes-vs-radio-buttons, item 7. Radio buttons and checkboxes should use positive and active wording. –  wootcat Oct 3 '13 at 14:02
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I hate forms that force users to use boolean algebra just to understand what they are not opting out of... –  Phil Oct 3 '13 at 16:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Yes - underhanded, but this is not a problem reserved for the web - it's long been an issue for print too.

A couple of years ago, the EU banned pre-ticked boxes on shopping websites in order to prevent such issues as unintentional purchase of insurance or optional extras when purchasing plane tickets, for example.

The legislation does appear to revolve around cost-related optional items, so maybe this is related, maybe not, but it probably has made some sites think about 'other ways' to get round the opt-in vs opt-out issues, such as deliberately resetting checkbox states when a first submit of a form fails, and stuff like this:

  • untick this box if you don’t want to opt-out of our newsletter

Let's face it, if the business model of a website involves income received from junk mail, selling on of email addresses, and other such schemes, they will have little compunction in slightly misleading messaging or using opt-out vs opt-in logic - until more legislation is forthcoming - at which point they will find another way.

But such business models are not restricted to the unscrupulous:

One area where I see opt-outs occurring frequently is with charity websites where indeed there is a very strong need to increase communication with people by email or by post in order to raise and retain awareness - and of course, seek donations.

As you can see with the form below from the Prostate Cancer UK charity, they use a common tactic of mixing opt-ins (for email) and opt-outs (for post and telephone).

Is this more acceptable just because it's a charity? Well consciously maybe, but in reality, no.

Is it any less annoying to get 'unexpected' email and post from a charity. No. In fact possibly more annoying because I didn't mean to ask for it and I see it as a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

enter image description here

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thanks - absolutely, yes always wait a while for more answers - sometimes accepting early does stop others from pitching in. –  Roger Attrill Oct 3 '13 at 10:51
    
Very useful information on legislation restrictions. –  Alexey Kolchenko Oct 3 '13 at 11:51
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+1 for teaching me the word "compunction" –  Simon Oct 3 '13 at 15:59
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@Simon that's not a reason to +1, unless you're on the English Language and Usage SE. +1 because it's a great answer. –  user Oct 3 '13 at 17:22
    
I'll give benefit of the doubt that he thought it was a great answer and the word compunction was simply added value ;-) –  Roger Attrill Oct 3 '13 at 17:34

Underhanded tactics most likely often take part. But you can also regard it in matters of how you design the offer and the box ticking experience.

Offer

  1. Are you adapting the webpage to a ready made, one-fits-all offer, with made choices by what the organisation thinks you should have, and you can make changes to that ready made offer if you must? And otherwise just press "Confirm" without reading it all.

  2. Or are you giving a skeleton offer, where users will have to go through the settings to tailor their own orders, each time.

Tick or untick

  1. Tick Checkboxes for changes. All are unticked as default.

  2. Untick Checkboxes for changes. All are ticked as default.

  3. Checkboxes matches the "ready made" offer. Some checkboxes are ticked, and some are not, matching what the organisation suggest that you order.

  4. Checkbox texts are easily readable, and ticks' default depend on both the offer design and the language.

  5. Checkboxes symbolize a positive choise

    ... And so on.

Conclusion

Now combine the different types of offers and tick or untick designs, and the NOT will be needed in the checkbox text. Typically combining 1. Ready made offer, with 1. Tick Checkboxes for changes, where you decide to opt out from a part of the deal.

Personally, I would prefer the "ready made" offer to match my personal needs, and not the needs of the organisations marketing department (eg without a newsletter as a part of the ready made offer), and texts that are as short and to the point, as possible. For example

[ ] Sign up for newsletter

There are also other approaches than the ones I listed here, and there are certainly a lot of forms out there that are not using any recognizable design at all.

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To me, checkboxes are a method of positive confirmation, I will almost always use them to confirm whether someone wants something and not that they don't. I can think of a few situations where you would need it to opt-out, but in general it's fundamentally a positive confirmation. That is why I despise this tactic so much, it completely goes against established user interaction. –  user Oct 3 '13 at 11:59
    
You are right, that is important. Added. –  JOG Oct 3 '13 at 12:28

It may be just me, but I personally often prefer it when checkboxes are unchecked by default. Then, once something is checked, it's a choice of my own rather than of someone else.

In fact, I did it that way on a web site I'm the webmaster for: "Newsletter: [ ] I do not want to receive the free newsletter by email", default unchecked. In this case:

  • The check box is right next to the field where you write your email address, so practically impossible to miss in that context.
  • The label strongly emphasizes that it's an active opt-out choice.
  • There aren't half a dozen checkboxes with different semantics on the form. (There are two checkboxes on this particular form, well separated by distance.)

I basically figure that you need to go through the form anyway; what's frustrating is when the meaning of the choices is actively concealed or confusing. Don't make me have to think to get the outcome I want; whether that means checking or unchecking a checkbox is of lesser importance.

Assuming that the organization behind the web site is reputable, they should respect your choice whichever one you make, but that doesn't mean they can't try to make it difficult to make the choice they don't want you to make; here, clarity helps the user as well as setting expectations for ease of later opt-out.

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As long as it's crystal clear that it says do not, it won't annoy me as much. So really, as long as the 'do not' is placed within the first four or five words of the label it's not so bad. It's the 'actively concealing or confusing' tactics that make me lose trust in a company. –  user Oct 3 '13 at 13:54
    
@Dominic Exactly. In this particular case, the negation (the actual text isn't in English) is the third word of the label. –  Michael Kjörling Oct 3 '13 at 14:01
    
-1 for making the newsletter subscription default even though the user did not explicitly click on anything to request it. The default should be nothing with no checks, then the users should be able to add options by checking them. –  Danny Varod Oct 7 '13 at 22:09
    
@DannyVarod You are of course free to downvote, but is your issue one with the particular example cited (which is about signing up for a paid membership with an organization), or is your issue one with the meat of my answer which is all about making the consequences of either choice perfectly clear to the user? (By your reasoning, the user should also have to make an explicit choice to receive the membership magazine.) –  Michael Kjörling Oct 8 '13 at 20:10
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My objection is with making the affect of the choices counter intuitive, then calling it "clear" just because the negative part is in bold. –  Danny Varod Oct 9 '13 at 0:31

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