Dark Pattern Alert: Forced continuity at Blue Apron

This post is likely very out of date. I’ve been told Blue Apron has made improvements to their account closure process. This post is an historical representation of how they handled user requests in 2014.

A friend of ours gave us an awesome wedding gift: a week of free meals from Blue Apron. We’d recently tried out Relay Foods a similar but only tangentially competitive service of home grocery delivery. The key difference between Relay and Blue Apron is in the former you shop like you’re at a grocery store, the latter you’re delivered exact fixings for specific meals. Our first week of meals arrives Friday and we’re pretty excited to have at least three dinners next week under delicious control. Thanks Laura!

The service is great but from a usability perspective the process of redeeming this gift was interesting. One of the first things Blue Apron asked us for was a credit card number. Strange, we thought, because the gift covered the entirety of a week’s basic delivery (3 meals in one week). Tried as we might, we could not figure out how to redeem the gift without attaching a credit card to our account so, not wanting to turn down the gift, we did. We were then taken to a screen asking us how many nights per week we wanted meals still without any real indication of what the gift covered. The default was 3 meals per week so we figured we’d go with that and go up if the gift was for more. We clicked through and only then (3 screens later) were we aware of how many meals were covered by the gift. Even at that point, though, we still had no idea what we were actually getting only that it would be determined based on our “preferences.” So, seeking out the menus we had subscribed to, we clicked through to the “My Account Screen” to discover that we had been subscribed to automatic weekly delivery of three meals per week through to the middle of October.

Scheduled deliveries every week? We never ordered that!

Scheduled deliveries every week? We never ordered that!

At that point we freaked out a bit. If we asked for a weekly delivery of three meals, we certainly didn’t remember doing it. Clicking through the application we tried to find a link to disable the account but the closest we could find was the ability to skip a week’s delivery. Not even on the My Account page was there an option to cancel the account or halt deliveries. We went ahead and skipped the remainder of the meals and will be investigating how to stop the service altogether following our Friday delivery.

Forced continuity is a common dark pattern where users are automatically enrolled in a continual subscription after signing up for a free trial and was recently made illegal in the UK. It is particularly common with credit monitoring and media streaming services. The user signs up for a free month of credit reporting and suddenly, two or three months later notices charges on their credit card.. While most people signing up for Blue Apron are probably doing so because they want continual delivery of meals, the service should consider letting people sign up without a credit card or on a one-off transaction in order to redeem gift cards. At the very least, Blue Apron should allow its users to select 0 as an option along side 2 and 4 people on the “Edit My Plan” view with the understanding that ordering food for 0 people means $0 will be charged to a credit card.

Blue apron should give users a means to cancel or indefinitely pause service.

Blue apron should give users a means to cancel or indefinitely pause service.

Canceling Blue Apron service can be accomplished by emailing cancellations@blueapron.com before your weekly cutoff. There does not appear to be any way of maintaining an account without being auto-enrolled in meal delivery. Finding this information requires three clicks, two page loads (in addition to loading blueapron.com), and some sleuthing. Scroll all the way to the bottom of any Blue Apron page and click “Contact & Help,” then choose “Skipping or Canceling” and click “Cancel my Account.” From there you’re taken to another page instructing you to send the email. Other help pages suggest there is no minimum subscription or commitment which, while true, is somewhat deceptive and a “roach motel” design anti-pattern.

We’ll update here with more on the cancellation process.

18F: Hacking Bureaucracy


It’s a big life change for me to add on to so many others lately. (Did you hear I got married?) On Monday I leave almost two years of work at Excella Consulting and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take on the unique opportunity of changing the way government works from the inside out. 18F is a fascinating agency that’s been getting a lot of attention for its connections to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship (which it runs) and the newly formed US Digital Service. At 18F we’re committed to working with other agencies to build high quality digital tools that disrupt the notion that government tech projects are long death marches that ultimately come up lackluster. Instead, 18F approaches government technical problems in a user-focused, agile way that will change the average citizen’s experience interacting with their government.

Working with a team of talented individuals to create a more open, transparent, and accessible government is a cause close to my heart. I’m tremendously excited to get to work hacking our bureaucracy.

Sound City: American music, recording, and audiophiles

Sound City is a documentary about the now defunct, eponymous Van Nuys studios. If you’ve never heard of the studios you’ve almost certainly heard music recorded there. The studios also hosted some of the most famous producers of the last 70 years, many of whom got their start as runners or assistants. The studios operated as a live performance studio: all analog equipment, with the full band recorded simultaneously. Directed and produced by Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Sound City is less a tribute to this studio so much as to the unique way in which music was recorded there.

The studio began with two people who wanted to start a record company and made a $75,000 gamble on a state of the art mixing console. With the room’s acoustics and the quality of the board, it quickly became a premier studio and rode that fame all the way until the boom of CD and digital recording in the late 80s. Business slowed as artists gravitated toward digital until its renaissance in the early 90s with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. That resurgence was short-lived, though, and the studio closed in 2011 (selling the famous board to Grohl). While digital recording is not out-right blamed for the studio’s closure, the consequences of its refusal to go digital are front and center.

Neil Young, one of the first artists to record at Sound City and possibly the biggest critic of digital audio around, is featured prominently and given room to go on his tirade against digital and the so-called “bill of goods” we’ve been sold with the CD and the false sense some musicans today have that they have a studio more powerful than Sound City built into their laptops. Instead of heading into a recording studio and producing an album, an individual can play the same intrument’s part hundreds of times and audition each part individually before stitching together a “prefect” mix.

This is certainly a disturbing trend, and, more than anything else, that style of recording indeed sucks the soul out of music. But Grohl’s argument is interesting in its technological-agnosticism. Where some would get hung up on technical differences between analog and digital, Grohl focuses on what the art was that studios like Sound City added to the musical process and makes an argument for its preservation. For great artists, Grohl argues, analog or digital doesn’t matter. Great producers can work a compressor whether it’s physically in the room or digitally represented on a screen. There is something intangible about recording music as a band, live, together in one room that adds a soulfulness, cohesion, and sense of mastry over the material that is impossible to reproduce with any other recording method. To the extent Sound City mourns analog recording it is in the way analog forced this style on the process.

Pro Tools is the easy scapegoat for the anti-digital chorus despite that it did for music what Photoshop did for photography. Professionals might disagree that having amateurs experimenting in their homes is good but for those of us who saw garage bands that might have faded into obscurity record full demos on a two track DAW, it is awesome. You don’t need to be an audiophile to know the difference between a good recording and a bad one. (Bad sound sounds bad, most people are just more tolerant of it.) But when you think you’re in the coolest band since Nirvana, you’re not recording your demo because you know anything about sound engineering, you’re doing it because you want to know something about it. You’re doing it because you want to be in a studio like Sound City.

The analog-digital debate has a place to illustrate the decline of and call for preservation of a particular recording art form Sound City Studios were particuarly good at and highlights an important lesson about new technology. There are three ways to approach technological changes: fully embrance the new and abandon the old, cling for dear life onto the old and reject the new, or some mix of both. Too many people do one of the first two and neither is productive. Sound City shows us how taking the thrid path is possible, and just as artistic, as either of the first two.

Sound City Studios will never be forgotten in American music history because of the music that was recorded there. The style and asthetic they infused into the recording process will be carried on by studios and future artists who insist on recording that way. Artists who insist on quality will not be stopped from it by technology. They will, just as Sound City did, focus on the sound of each instrument in the mix with the rest of the band to find the perfect rhythm, timbre, and harmony to produce an album. Dave Grohl’s documentary will live on as a reminder of what recording was like in the early years of the recording industry long after the mp3 has been supplanted by new technology and new musicians using it. To that end, Sound City is an important documentary for the history of American music and the nature of music as a form of art.