Dark Passages, Amazon, and Transparent UX with STAUFFER’s UX Chief, Barrett Reiff-Morse

Last week Amazon was hit with a major lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commision (FTC), alleging that their company uses deceptive and unfair UX practices that make canceling their Amazon Prime subscription extremely difficult. The FTC claims that Amazon uses tactics sometimes called “dark passages” to make “manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs … to trick consumers into enrolling into automatically-renewing Prime subscriptions.”

In this article we will talk with Stauffer’s senior UX expert, Barrett Reiff-Morse on shady UX practices and how this lawsuit highlights why a transparent user experience (UX) is paramount to your company’s reputation. While leading Stauffer’s UX team, Barrett has worked with some of the nation’s largest corporations to create transparent reliable, and ethical user experiences that create meaningful and revenue-generating experiences.

As a senior UX developer, what do you think about this Amazon FTC case and black hat UX in general?

BRM: “Unfortunately dark passages like what Amazon is being sued for happen quite often. Black hat UX doesn’t just come in one flavor though, dark passages like these are just one way companies use complicated UX to try to maximize their profits.”

Can you speak more on these allegations of Amazon’s dark passages? 

BRM: “According to the FTC, Amazon knowingly created a sole, “labyrinthine” process to unsubscribe from their Prime service, and by knowingly I mean it was such a deliberate plan that it had a nickname: “The Iliad Flow.” Comparing their four-page, six-click, fifteen-option cancellation process to the classic epic by Homer and its never-ending war sounds like prima facie proof of  customers.”

You said this isn’t the only bad-faith UX practice that can be employed to deceive customers?

BRM: “It isn’t. There are many ways dark passages like what Amazon is being accused of that businesses often get away with to make money in unsavory ways. Take hidden costs for example: keeping additional fees like shipping costs and various taxes and surcharges hidden until the final checkout is an extremely common tactic that keeps prices on your store pages low but can create a bit of sticker shock for the customer.”

I feel like I see that all the time.

BRM: “It’s become so common that consumers come to expect it but it’s a small example of how businesses use psychological tricks to force you into making a purchase. Other gimmicks like forcing account registration or forced continuity however can take things a step further to squeeze every dollar out of their customers.”

Forced continuity?

BRM: “Forced continuity is just another term for a dark passage that automatically enrolls users into a subscription or recurring payments without a clear or obvious way for customers to consent. It often comes in the way of automatically checking a box for you and burying it in a mess of boring text or misleading sign-up form meant to be frustrating and easily-overlooked. Once a customer has agreed upon these terms, customers are often unaware of the charge and, similar to the Amazon case, they can make it extremely difficult for buyers to opt-out of these charges.”

What can be the consequences of deploying these bad-faith UX tactics?

BRM: “Well as you see here in the Amazon case, if you are found guilty you could be fined and heavily penalized by the FTC. Even if you were able to beat the charges, you have heavily eroded the trust in your consumer base and could leave the door wide open for a more reputable brand to put you out of business.”

Are there any strategies you emphasize to your clients to make sure they stay in good standing with the law and their customers? 

BRM: “Aside from not doing any of the things we just talked about, as a UX strategist, I always recommend clients clearly display all fees and charges associated with their purchases. I also strongly urge clients to always have a guest checkout option, there’s no reason to keep a user registration barrier in the way of making a sale. Lastly, always keep navigation simple – a logically thought out page organization has been demonstrated to increase sales that outpace any black hat UX.”

Thanks for your time, Barrett.

BRM: You got it.

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