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On Intentional Subscriptions

There is a concept in user interface design called the Principle of Least Surprise, where you want to design systems in such a way that they surprise their users least. I think a similar concept applies to subscription pricing. The ideal (from a user friendliness perspective, not best business perspective) system for customer subscriptions should never surprise the customer with a charge. The customer should always be happy to see a charge appear on their credit card.

In other words, their subscription payments should always be Intentional.

via David Smith

I mostly agree with David in this piece on Intentional Subscriptions. I have a few thoughts, however.

First and foremost, I love the idea of a system-owned screen for confirmation of subscriptions. Apple has made the guidelines for the subscription presentation page so muddy that almost no developer I know is ever confident that the requirements are being met by their apps. Let Apple design this page exactly how they want it, and let every app get the exact same screen. More consistency for customers, leading to fewer surprises. No more fearing I’m going to get rejected. Apple saves money on App Review. It’s a win all around.

Let us upload Terms and Conditions text and a description of each subscription item directly into AppStoreConnect. Then, Apple can pull everything it needs right off its own servers. All a dev would need to do is ask to pop up the SubscriptionConfirmationViewController, or whatever they call it. Similar to asking for a review prompt. When dismissed, we get a completion handler with confirmation that they subscribed and an ID for the item to which they subscribed, or a notice that the customer cancelled or that the transaction failed. Devs could even update their text descriptions this way without having to upload a new app binary. They’d have to get the new metadata approved, of course. Which would cut down on fraud as well.

Please, please, Apple. Do this.

Next, notifications. I agree that a notification makes more sense than an email on renewal of subscriptions. However, I get hundreds of notifications every week. And I’m pretty careful about turning off notifications for many apps. Ideally, these renewal notifications would be on by default, but they should only fire at the end of trial and at the first renewal after. And I should be able to opt out of them on an app-by-app basis. I don’t need to be reminded every month for every one of my apps separately. (There’s a fine line between not surprising a customer and treating them like a child who can’t be responsible for their own finances.)

Curtis Herbert said it better on Twitter (thread):

As far as being able to cancel your subscription right from the notification itself is concerned, I think this sounds better on paper than it would be in practice. People don’t read their notifications carefully. I see a ton of people accidentally unsubscribing to apps, then getting super confused when their apps no longer work. This would lead to increased support load for everyone. Tapping on the notification should take you directly to the subscriptions page on the App Store, however. (See Curtis’ thread linked above.) Then you could unsubscribe, intentionally, with another tap or two.

As far as auto-renew happening a the end of the trial, I think a lot of developers don’t realize how common this is in most markets. Yes, it’s different from the shareware days of yesteryear, but auto-converting trials are a practice with which most people are very familiar. Magazines have been doing this for decades, for instance. And it makes sense. For every customer who we might be saving from an accidental payment by disabling auto-conversion, we’re annoying ten others who already indicated they want to keep using the app and don’t want to verify yet again.

As long as customers are getting notifications before the trial ends, and they get a 24-hour grace period to cancel (another good idea from Smith) I don’t see any need for Apple to remove the convenience of auto-renewal after the trial ends.

Especially for apps like my own RECaf that almost never get launched (you can interact with it primarily through Siri), having to manage subscription renewal in the background could get hairy quickly. I could see tons of customer support issues stemming from this.

Any developer who doesn’t want to have a trial auto-subscribe at the end has the freedom to do that right now. Just don’t use Apple’s trial system. Track how long the customer is using the app yourself, then just present the subscription without a trial at the appropriate time.

Lastly, and I’ve written about this before, I think Apple should require apps to provide a link to the subscription management page inside our apps. We have the ability to do that (I do it inside RECaf), but few developers actually do.

And that subscription management page also absolutely should be linked at the top level in with the title “Manage Subscriptions.” I don’t know any non-developers who know where that page is buried inside the App Store and iTunes settings.