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John is responsible for designing an online shopping cart and checkout experience at a mid-size organization.

John goes to the grocery store, where a checkout clerk asks if he'd like to donate a few dollars to a good cause. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that John and his community recognize it as a good cause.

John goes back to work, does some research, and finds that these "checkout charity" asks bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in just his country, which is the US.

John has an idea:
"Let's add this feature to our online shopping cart! On the checkout page, we'll ask folks to donate a few dollars to a good cause." Knowing the power of defaults, he even decides "Let's make that the default, for every checkout. We'll also provide a link someone can click on to get a popup explaining what the donation is for, and allowing them to change the amount, increasing it up quite a bit or decreasing it, even down to zero if they want. Because they have the option of setting the donation to zero, it's completely optional, but because we're making it easier to give, and a lot of the people who use our checkout are likely to be of the giving type and see this as a good cause, we'll be able to collect a lot more donations this way, compared to if we made the default zero. We'll give folks a receipt they can use for a US tax deduction. Since it's online and we provide more information about the charity than at the grocery store, it doesn't even have the 'public shaming' or non-transparency issues that some cheapskates grouse about online, plus we have customers' information to enable re-contact, and we'll pick a charity that aligns with what people are going through the checkout for. Even if some Canadian public radio types don't like this, at least some polls suggest most Americans do. "

Suppose that once this change is made, donations per checkout do go up, quite significantly.

Are there any significant drawbacks John should be aware of? If so, is there any evidence to suggest whether they are or aren't strong enough to outweigh the benefits? Are there other benefits? Are there studies that have been done about this, looking at long-term impacts or other effects?

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Ethical Considerations

As far as I‘m concerned, requiring opt-out for any charge not necessary for the purchase is a dark pattern and an ethical Bad Thing. Sites that do it know bloody well that many users won’t have time to read a cluttered web page carefully, and end up including the purchase/donation when they wouldn’t otherwise, and didn’t really want to. They know that users are used to getting mandatory small amounts tacked on the purchase total (tax, shipping, handling), and won’t think to question an added line item before clicking Purchase. It’s trickery, so it’s wrong.

Maybe this will give you an intuitive sense of it being wrong: consider your bricks-and-mortar grocery store where, instead the cashier of asking you for a donation, there is a small easy-to-miss sign, amidst the clutter of the candy and gossip magazines, saying “We’ll automatically add $X to your bill to donate to Worthy Charity. Press the yellow key on the credit card reader if you don’t want to do this.” How would you feel about that?

Now, can I dream up some hypothetical extreme example where the ends justifies the means? Sure, and like nearly all hypothetical extremes, it involves Nazis. I personally would think it’s okay to include a default donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum on a site for buying swag of the regional Nazi party. That would be a hoot.

But seriously, for any practical situation, it’s ethically out.

Business Considerations

Opt-out of charity is probably out from a business standpoint too. There will be people who are offended and/or feel tricked. That they liked the charity (if they did) only softens the offense. There may be some who feel it’s personally unethical to casually hand out money. They want to get the biggest bang for their donation buck, so they carefully select who they give too. As far as they’re concerned, the site cheated a more worthy charity (in their opinion) out of a donation.

What would be the bottom-line impact on the brand? I don’t have any research, but, analytically, users will think equally positively about the brand for supporting the charity whether the site uses explicit opt-in or opt-out. However, some perception of the brand will be diminished by using opt-out by those who feel tricked. Net effect: opt-out helps the charity (at least you say so in your scenario), but hurts the business.

User Self-Esteem Considerations

Opt-in is probably better than opt-out from a UX standpoint too. What would make you, as a user, feel better about yourself? That you weren’t careful and, oops, made a donation without really noticing? Or that you actually made an effort (even if it’s just some reading and making a click) to help someone? I’d hypothesize that making users more aware of their intentional charity boost their self-esteem more, and is thus a better UX.

That could even have a long-term upside for the charity. The user associates the charity with feeling good, not feeling stupid, so the user is more likely to donate again. It’s a good research question to see if that’s true*.

*Social psych geek corner: Dissonance Theory predicts tricking users into donating can actually make them more likely to donate in the future, but, I’d say the direct reward of explicit opt-in is a more certain and immediate benefit than dissonance reduction, and therefore I predict it to be stronger.

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