What’s in a checkbox?

Part of my job at ScraperWiki—as VP of Product, and even as a designer in general—is to make decisions on behalf of our users.

I conduct research into which new features would be most valuable to them. I spend weeks thinking about the best way to align rectangles on a screen, so they can just get their stuff done. And, earlier this month, I pre-selected a checkbox so they wouldn’t have to.

That last one—the checkbox—made me feel strangely dishonest.

Zoomed-in image of a checkbox

Suggestion through pre-selected binary choices (what Psychologists call the “default effect”) isn’t anything new. In much of Europe, organ donation is opt-out, and has been for decades. The simple truth: it dramatically increases donations. Germany which, like us in the UK1, has an opt-in system, has a consent rate of 12% of citizens. Neighbouring Austria, with their opt-out system, has a consent rate of 99.98%2.

Graph from Johnson & Goldstein (Science, 2003) showing comparative organ donation rates in European countries

Increased adoption was also the reason, a week or so ago, I was asked to tick the checkbox on scraperwiki.com. The checkbox controls whether you’re added to our email newsletter list when you create a new account.

Not that I’m comparing organ donation to email newsletters, but the underlying ethical question is the same. At what point do I, as a designer, have sufficient data to make a decision on the user’s behalf? Knowing that most people don’t read forms, and knowing that most people hate unsoliticted mail. But also knowing that ScraperWiki’s a start-up and needs to generate as much publicity for its new tools as it can before it runs out of money and dies.

Industry body guidelines on the subject aren’t particularly helpful3. And arguments for assumed consent (“They can always untick it!” / “There’s an unsubscribe link on each email!”) are easy to make.

In the end, I know that, when I visit a site, and they’ve pre-ticked the “spam me” checkbox, I trust them just a little bit less. I feel like they’re out to trick me. They’re not breaking any rules, but it feels… ungentlemanly.

I just hope that when people visit ScraperWiki, and they see our checkbox, they won’t feel so betrayed. Maybe they’ll even find this blog post, and realise why we did it.

  1. It seems opt-out organ donation was discussed in the UK a few years ago, and this taskforce report on the subject provides a thorough, if somehat turgid, overview of the pro’s and con’s involved. Their conclusion? “A clear consensus […] that an opt out system should not be introduced in the UK at the present time.”

  2. Wikipedia: Organ donation # Opt-in vs. opt-out

  3. Harry Brignull, a Brighton-based UX designer, gave a brilliant talk about this and other “dark patterns” at UX Brighton in 2010. When he looked for guidance from the IXDA, he couldn’t find any. Meanwhile, the UXPA offers only vague “ethical principles” like “Be honest with everyone” and “Respect privacy”.