The unsubscribe roach motel: an email subscription anti-pattern

For those of you who don’t know the US cultural reference, the Roach Motel is a cockroach trap. Essentially just a small cardboard box with sticky paper inside, Roach Motels were made famous by Muhammad Ali, who at the tail end of his career was hired in as the product spokesman. Interesting choice.

“Roaches check in, but they don’t check out”, as the saying goes. While this might be a passable way of getting rid of cockroaches, it’s a terrible way to treat your website visitors, yet it’s very common to see this pattern in email service subscription UIs.

Lets look at the steps required to sign up to an email service on a typical site:

  1. User clicks on the ‘subscribe’ link
  2. They then register, entering their email address
  3. Then enter a new password
  4. Then enter it a second time in the ‘repeat password’ field
  5. And finally, they submit the form and subscribe to the service

So, that’s 5 or so steps, and each of those are pretty low effort. While it is annoying to be forced to create an account, there’s no serious brainstrain going on yet. Now, lets imagine a couple of weeks have passed and the user is getting fed up with the emails they are receiving. What steps are involved in unsubscribing from the same service?

  1. User clicks on the ‘unsubscribe’ link
  2. They then have to log-in. They enter their email address
  3. Then they hesitate at the password field, wondering “Which of my passwords was it?”
  4. So, they try at a password, and hit submit
  5. Error feedback comes back showing that they got the password wrong
  6. They click on the forgotten password link
  7. The form asks them to enter their email address again
  8. They fill in the form, and hit submit
  9. They switch to their email account, and wait a minute or two for the email to arrive
  10. Some users at this point also have to check their junk mail folder, while others will be sidetracked by important new emails in their inbox
  11. Finally, the email arrives, they open it and click on the “reset password” link
  12. They choose a new password, repeat it and submit the form
  13. And finally, they are able to unsubscribe from the email service

On the unsubscribe journey, we’ve got 13 or so time-consuming steps, and some of them are deeply frustrating. When you look at it like this, it’s obvious that it’s a catastrophically awful user experience.

What’s a user to do?

Make unsubscribe easy or risk getting spam filtered

To avoid jumping through all those hoops, the Report Spam button must feel pretty alluring. And if users start clicking it en mass, you’re in big trouble. Google doesn’t discourage this, to quote from the Official Gmail blog: “…if you didn’t ask for it and you don’t want it, it’s spam to you, and it should be reported. We’ll sort it out on our side.”

When a customer wants to leave, it’s crucial that you allow them to do so in a pleasant way. When frustrated customers leave, they don’t come back.