In attempting to unsubscribe from a company's emailing list, I was directed to a website with the following form.

enter image description here

Note the phrase "Check off the boxes... you wish to unsubscribe from." Is this some type of standard phrasing? The use of the terms off and unsubscribe seem to make the sentence ambiguous; should I check or uncheck? (The default page has all check boxes unchecked.)

Is there a way this company can improve their phrasing?

  • any other phrasing, this one is made to be ambiguous so the bean counters can say "look at how many newsletters we are sending" of all the accidental subscriptions Oct 8, 2014 at 15:23

4 Answers 4


This is known as a Dark Pattern; a user interface designed to trick people. From the DarkPatterns.org website:

A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.

In this particular case you are confirming a negative. The regular pattern for checkboxes is confirmation: "Yes (checkmark), I want to receive this newsletter". But in this case, you're confirming the opposite: "Yes (checkmark), I don't want to receive this newsletter".

If you were to say the second phrase to someone in regular conversation, they would likely have to pause for a short period of time to make sure they heard you correctly. They may even ask you for clarification: "Wait... you do want to, or don't want to?", because you just mixed a positive statement with a negative statement.

On the Dark Patterns website, these are called Trick Questions. Here is one particular example - Subaru Australia employs more checkbox trickery (February 2012):

enter image description here

The obvious modification, to address your question directly, is that the checkboxes should indicate the visitor wishes to continue to receive the newsletters. But it isn't that this company needs to be made aware their checkboxes are confusing, it is that they've made them that way on purpose.

  • Non-standard "check off" phrasing is intentionally ambiguous between "toggle on/off state" ("off" means no tick in the box) and "mark items on a checklist" ("check off" has the opposite meaning).
    – dbkk
    Oct 8, 2014 at 19:04

I agree that checking the boxes to unsubscribe seems backwards. If this page has access to the information of whether or not the current visitor is already subscribed to any or all of these emails, they could load the page with those boxes already checked and then tell the user If checked, you will receive the following email(s):

I also think the last option being a checkbox is kind of silly, as checking it would require disabling the other checkboxes (otherwise leading to massive confusion if other boxes are still checked). It should probably be a button with the same text that just unchecks all of the other boxes.


What would be optimal is that when I click Unsubscribe at the bottom of the email, I'm taken to a page where the work has been done for me and I'm simply given confirmation that I have been unsubscribed. Done deal.

I think they make it confusing by using a header like Update your preferences. That's not the action I'm there to take -- I'm really there to Unsubscribe. It almost implies that I can choose to subscribe or unsubscribe, but I understand it more as "We don't know what you're subscribed to, but tell us which newsletters we should try to remove you from."

You take out terms like Update and it might make a little more sense: The page tells me I'm here to unsubscribe, so yes, unsubscribe me from this and this and this. And save the updating for when the user has logged in, can see his choices and update them.

Or you could be more explicit with what the checkbox does:


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

  • Your example at the end does exactly what the original poster is pointing out as bad. Why is a simple re-wording of a dark pattern any better then the original dark pattern? Oct 8, 2014 at 21:31

As ECM says this seems awfully close to a dark pattern. Really tricky language, confirming a negative.

However, what they say...check off the boxes you want to unsubscribe from... Is it the case that the screenshot we are seeing here is of someone not currently subscribed to any?

In which case updating preferences and tick off the boxes isn't such bad language...though I would change the text somewhat to something more along the lines of "Please tick the boxes for the newsletters you wish to receive"- this will make it clear to users that on=receive and off=don't receive. With their current settings loaded by default of course,and clearly labelled as such.

This would allow the page to fulfill the dual function of subscribing and unsubscribing and help account for events where somebody has subscribed to the wrong newsletter.

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