Whilst filling out a form on the Royal Mail site this morning, I came across this heresy of form design: the self-negating checkbox...

Bad Royal Mail form! Bad!

This required careful (re)reading to ensure that:

  1. I was actually opting out of the first set of marketing questions
  2. I did not have to tick the second group of boxes as these were default opt-out
  3. ... I was not actually going crazy

The mixed metaphor is confusing enough to me, but I was under the impression that (in EU countries at least) the legal requirement was for all marketing preference questions to now be opt-in by default, not opt-out?

Has any notable comparative research been done into opt-in versus opt-out options on forms to see which are more annoying / easier to understand? The inconsistency across sites just from one country is mindboggling, never mind an apparent lack of international standard. Is it just me failing to wrap my head around things still being opt-out by default or does nobody else actually care?

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    This is a recognized dark pattern. I'll see if I can find a research citation and post it. Mar 21, 2013 at 11:51
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    this reads very confusing. Wonder how they came up with it. AFAIK in EU you need double opt-in, opt in on the form, and then confirm via mail. And I think prechecked checkboxes are not allowed. You need to actively check it. Mar 21, 2013 at 12:00
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    @JimmyBreck-McKye I think this falls into the trick questions category darkpatterns.org/library/trick_questions
    – TomDoes
    Mar 21, 2013 at 12:14
  • Some useful tidbits, thanks all. When I last read up on significant changes to EU commercial communications, I believe it's actually NOT illegal if the recipient is a business (as it's then B2B solicitation which falls into a different category from B2C?) However it is now, it's still incredibly frustrating when generic sales@ company accounts start getting tons of irrelevant spam. Sad also to see otherwise legitimate companies buying unwashed lists from providers then spamming out. Apr 14, 2013 at 15:29

3 Answers 3


Mixing opt-in and opt-out is totally bad UX as it leads to a lot of confusion. The meaning of both lists should be consistent, so there should be either opt-out or opt-in for both groups:

Do you want to receive information from us by:

[]post []phone []email []SMS []

Do you want to receive information from our carefully selected premium partners:

[]post []phone []email []SMS []

The reason for mixing the opt-in and opt-out mechanisms may, however, lie in some legal requirements (it sometimes leads to such situations). However, even in this situation it could be presented in a more clear way, e.g.:

Select the options below TO RECEIVE information from us:

[]post []phone []email []SMS []

Select the options below NOT TO RECEIVE information our carefully selected premium partners:

[]post []phone []email []SMS []

Regarding the opt-in and opt-out performance, please refer to this study, showing that opt-ins have significantly better conversion: http://mashable.com/2011/11/28/mailing-list-performance/ Opt-outs during a registration process are confusing and irritating, so it's actually close to adding people to a list without their knowledge.

From my point of view, these results are quite understandable, because:

  • as opt-outs are confusing and users tend to not read the text carefully, they may consider opt-out as opt-in (so they select all the options to get the information not having noticed that they actually opt-out). In this case they will not receive the information at all if they click all the options and will receive the undesired information though they think they have not agreed on it (if they don't tick the options).
  • the CTA in opt-outs calls to opt-out, and CTA is allways suggestive; so if someone tells me to opt-out, I just do.
  • Thanks for confirming it's not just me going crazy. I think I may forward this SE URL to Royal Mail's PR department... Apr 14, 2013 at 15:31

Opt-in vs opt-out is a legal question and (if it's for communication) in most countries (USA and Europe included). Any agreement to communicate with someone has to be an opt-in, otherwise that communication is legally spam, and anyone receiving it (in a country where it is illegal) may sue you. In fact there are people who make their living suing people that send them spam.

Outside of communication, a checkmark should always be used to select a positive statement. It is both what we have come to expect, as well as being the clearest way to read and scan something quickly.

EDIT: On the legality question:

  • For Europe, you can refer to the "General Data Protection Regulation" (Regulation 2016/679).
  • For Canada, "CASL - Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation"(S.C. 2010, c. 23).
  • For the USA, "CAN-SPAM Act"(2003).
  • Most other countries require opt-in (either double or single).

It gets tricky in the USA because the CAN-SPAM Act (which is a federal act) actually does allow unsolicited email, but has a list of other requirements that need to be met. However each state may also have their own laws limiting unsolicited email, which would need to be met when communicating with someone in one of those states. So unless you; your server; and the recipient is in a location which allows default opt-in, you need to have opt-in.

Please note, that I have used these countries as examples, not because they are the only ones that matter. Here is a good reference on country opt-in laws, see

  • Hi John, can you provide some citations for the legality claim here?
    – TylerH
    Dec 12, 2018 at 17:01
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    @TylerH My answer was too long to fit, so I added it as an edit to my post. I hope that helps.
    – JohnGB
    Dec 15, 2018 at 8:28

At my company (4 million online customers) we noticed that confronting users with these kind of patterns resulted in harvesting very bad (false) contact information. If users don't want spam, they just don't want spam. That's the easy part. Convincing the marketing department with targets on harvesting quantity instead of quality is the hard part. Bottom line: why would you use tricks on your clients when they are much better at playing it that way?

  • I'd then be interested to know what happens to your quality scoring when users simply hit the Spam button in webmail services like GMail - I'm aware it attempts to unsubscribe the customer in the background, but don't know any more about exactly how it discerns exactly how to request an unsub on behalf of the recipient). Apr 14, 2013 at 15:27

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