10 Shady Software Practices That Bug Me

As a software developer I can see both sides of the software “coin” and as an informed user I take offense to some of the shadier tricks I’ve seen lately.

This isn’t specific to any single vendor or even type of app/game but it seems at a certain point every software developer hits a moral crossroads where they have to decide if the increased revenue potential is worth crossing the ethical line in the sand.

Admittedly these scenarios are often a very gray area but I’m going to play a trump card on each that I’m calling the “Usability First Card“.

In short it’s really simple… If the software avoids basic usability in order to take advantage of a user where the upshot is potential financial gain – I call Shinanigans!

#1 – Overlay popup windows with ridiculously tiny ‘(x)’ buttons to close them.

Especially on mobile web sites/apps this is insanely frustrating as 50% of the time you end up missing the (x) and clicking the popup window. Inevitably 9 times out of 10 this isn’t just a message box, it’s an advertisement for something you could care less about.  Are the developers doing this on purpose? there might be some naive developers out there that are doing this accidentally but I bet that most are taking advantage of this usability issue to increase their ad click rates, and thus their ad revenue!

#2 – Randomly placing the close (x) on the top left, or the top right.

Does the (x) belong on the top right? or top left?… we could argue that for days but what is for sure is that it should be placed consistently within a site/app.  There’s several mobile games I’ve seen that randomly change the location and thus clicking in the spot where the (x) was before now becomes an ad click. Shame on you developers… even you know that this tactic is shady!

#3 – Placing the “Continue” button jammed up against the “Buy Stuff” button

If you’ve ever played mobile games you have likely been snagged by this where the button you want to click to “Continue” is placed right above/below the “Buy Stuff” button such that if you are off by 1 or 2 pixels in your click you are taken to a purchase screen.  General usability tells us that placing 2 distinctly different buttons so close to each other is not a good idea but shady developers are just hoping that if you get there (even by accident) you might buy more gems, diamonds, coins, tickets, tokens etc. for your game.

#4 – Sizing buttons such that the “free” button is 1/2 the size of the “pay” button

From a marketing perspective and the “Art of Persuasion” it makes sense to make the Call To Action (CTA) e.g. purchase button larger in size as it is easier to click and much more prominent… however if you do the inverse and make the free option so small that it can’t be easily clicked, or try your best to hide it then you are doing your users a serious dis-service.  It’s important to note that your current “non or low paying” users might be your high paying users in the future – so you don’t want to tick them off with silly stuff like making their user experience suffer.

#5 – Don’t let me use an app for “Free” and then only when I’ve spent an hour on it tell me that I can’t save my file!

There’s nothing wrong with a freemium model that let’s a user sign up for free to try out a product… and then once they discover they like it provide an option for them to purchase it.  However you won’t make any friends and you’ll likely get bad reviews if you let them create a file, work on it for an hour then tell them they can’t save their work without paying. I actually used a web app recently that did this… and even though I was making the purchase… they didn’t save my work! This left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I opted to cancel my subscription instead. If they didn’t care about me as a user right from the beginning – what chance do I have once they’ve “cashed my check”?… am I going to have to pay to export my data later if I decide to leave the app?

#6 – Cranking up the volume when playing a video ad

I find this one particularly offensive when I’m lying in bed trying to wind down before going to sleep. A video ad comes on and the developer has chosen to jack up the volume. If I have the volume setting at 1 or 2 it’s at that level because in my current surroundings that’s the volume I need.

#7 – Playing “The old switcheroo

You’re playing a simple tapping game on your phone where a tap is “gas”, “jump”, “shoot” or similar and it’s the only thing you need to do. By default (and not to obscure your view) you tend to tap in the middle of the screen about 1/4 the way up from the bottom. This works perfectly when playing a single handed game. When your game ends you just tap on the “Start Game” button conveniently placed where your finger already is to start over. This is where the evil sneaks in, randomly inserting a full screen ad after a game ends so that you tap the ad instead of starting a new game. To add insult to injury you place the download/install button in the exact same spot as the Start Game button.

#8 – App install required to play video

We connect with our friends and family on Facebook and similar social media outlets.

Sooner or later one of your friends has shared a video “OMG! I can’t believe what this dog does to this poor little girl!” The title alone is extremely “click bait” in nature but if your friend shared it, it must be good, right?!

You click the video link and you’re prompted to install some sort of app/plugin to see it that needs full access to your contacts and your Facebook profile in order for you to watch it.

This is ludicrous as any modern browser can play a video or in the worst case download it so you can watch it in the app of your choice. Instead it is a very thinly veiled con into you installing their crapware and/or letting them mine your social circle… Or worse yet spam them – in fact you now have to wonder if that’s why your friend <air-quotes>shared</air-quotes> this video in the first place!?

#9 – Pre-checked spam/upsell items

You go to install, upgrade or just plain load some software and behold you are presented with a few options and a Next button… Your brain is so well trained to just accept the defaults and go but a closer look reveals those less than stellar options are pre-checked! Do you want to sign up for a spammy newsletter? Of course you don’t, want some useless toolbar installed in your browser? Nuh uh! Want us to sell your email profile to our “partners” with very likely even shadier business practices? – oh he** no!

I’ve commented on this one before as I find it not only frustrating but it directly negatively affects my image of your brand!

#10 – Auto-renew from free to paid

Often a software company will give you the chance to try software for free. Conceptually this is awesome as it lets you experience a piece of software on your own terms and decide if it fits your needs. However some folks have decided that this signup requires a credit card and that after the trial period you will be automatically billed *unless* you reach out to them and cancel first. If I catch on that this is how a company operates their trials, I immediately drop out of the free trial as this is not how I want to be treated as a potential customer.

#11. – (bonus 2 for 1) Fake Billing

If you’ve ever bought an Internet domain where your name and address are on record as the owner of a domain you’ve likely received what appears to be a bill to renew your domain(s) well before they will expire… by a completely unrelated company!

The scammers behind this send you what looks like a bill (though to cover themselves legally it has fine print indicating that this is only an offer to use their services). If you don’t take the time to scan the details you end up paying the new fees (which transfers ownership of the domain) and often the fees are not as competitive as where you are currently.

The 2 for 1 part of this item, is that domain sellers can alleviate this issue if they put their own details in for the public listing (Whois record), to obtain a “private listing”… and they do provide this service!, at an extra cost! It would be best if domain sellers/hosting companies just put the private registration right in the cost of the domain up front.

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