Don’t require your users to have a degree in philosophy, episode 3


While signing up for online bill payment for one of the services I use, I encountered the following check box:

Uncheck this box if you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ.

This is not simply a negative-sense checkbox; it’s a double-negative-sense checkbox! What’s wrong with this:

Send me electronic communications from XYZ.

Oh, right, I know what’s wrong with it: It’s too easy for people to opt out! Marketing is all about making users ask for something they don’t want.

Comments (29)
  1. Triangle says:

    I unchecked the box as soon as I saw it, before even reading what was there.

    I’m marketings’ worst enemy.

  2. Tim the Enchanter says:

    "Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket." – George Orwell

  3. Rachael says:

    I saw a new low in opt-out marketing this week. I phoned a company and my call was held in a queue, and in among the holding music and the "your call is important to us" messages was a message informing me that the company WILL send me marketing mailings unless I tell the rep who eventually answers my call that I don’t want any.

    If I’d been ignoring all the rubbish that’s played during holding, I’d have missed the message.

    When my call was eventually answered, I told the rep I didn’t want to receive any junk mail, as per the holding message. She said "Hang on, I’m not sure what I have to do about that; I’ll go and check." Evidently I was the first to notice and act on the opt-out.

  4. Josh says:

    Now if only the people responsible for designing Group Policy settings would listen to Raymond…

    I know this isn’t Raymond’s area, but seriously, 50% of the Group Policy settings involve at least one negative, and half of those are double negatives (with the additional complication of figuring out what Not Configured means).

  5. Skizz says:

    I once used a site that had both:

    Uncheck this box if you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ.

    and

    Check this box if you do not wish to receive some other electronic communications from XYZ.

    options on the same page.

    Skizz

  6. David Walker says:

    Yes, some of the Group Policy settings are really confusing.  

    I suspect that some things were always turned off or not allowed, and there’s now a setting to remove this "not allowed" state, and the people who describe the feature apparnetly can’t figure out any good way to word the option.  

  7. anti-mark says:

    I once received this:

    "If you would like to receive business or career-related offers from Penton Media you do not have to respond to this email.  You can easily opt out each time you receive an email from us if you don’t find the information useful and worthwhile."

    I had not subscribed to any of their emails, but they took it upon themselves to add me and then I would have to remove myself I to opt out.  I had never opted in to start off with!

  8. James Schend says:

    David Walker: The easier solution would be to simply change the default state of the checkbox, and word the message in an easy-to-understand fashion. As opposed to keeping the default checkbox state the same and going through verbal contortions to attempt to explain it.

    Hopefully, Microsoft does this when it rolls out new products. IE’s Internet Settings -> Advanced dialog contains a lot of confusing checkboxes also, even in IE7. :(

  9. Tanveer Badar says:

    It was not easy to not understand it.

  10. Andy Brummer says:

    I worked on a web site where you were presented with a list of system types.  The default selection was everything selected, so the text read "deselect the systems you don’t want".  

  11. Christian says:

    On a spoofed site I once designed a long form where one advertisement-checkbox would simply return to its initial state after 2 seconds :-)

    And another one that just disappeared if you moved the mouse near it so you couldn’t uncheck it

    [And one that changed its description each time you toggled it. -Raymond]
  12. ::Wendy:: says:

    What makes it worse is that in some local spoken language (Reading, Berks, UK) the double-negative actually is a negative.  So even if you did have a degree in philosophy you’d still have to reverse engineer the dialect that the author was writting-in

  13. Joe says:

    Or if you really want to put directions in the description, how about "If you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ, uncheck this box."

  14. Brad says:

    It is so evil as "hide extensions for known file types" (some localizations of that string use a double negative and are very hard to understand)

  15. Marc says:

    ::Wendy:: – what do you mean? I’m from Reading, Berkhire – never noticed it before.

  16. ChrisMcB says:

    @Joe

    How is "If you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ, uncheck this box." clearer than "Uncheck this box if you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ."

  17. Carter says:

    My wife is a lawyer I now have her read everything I sign, click or sit on.

  18. steveg says:

    I had the very same argument last week with our marketing dept when they wanted a new checkbox on our website. I told them double negative check boxes are two-faced, evil and nefarious (then I had to explain it in words they understood). But I won. Kind of. The new checkbox is an upright model of checkbox citizenship, the existing three remain evil. I’m working on it, doing my bit, bit by bit.

    (To make it worse the double negatives are for services people actually want (and pay for); I’ve decided marketing just like being evil for the hell of it.)

    The IE7 "[X] Setting ABC-ON|OFF" thing is one of the three dreadful things in IE7’s UI — which idiot decided that was a good idea? (menu layout and Refresh+Stop button placement being the other two. IMO).

  19. DriverDude says:

    Replace the web page with the human (um, scumbag) who wrote that sentence. Image he told you verbally:

    "Uncheck this box if you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ."

    Makes more sense now? He is giving you instructions in the conventional sense.

    The problem is most people still have not learned to how to communicate effectively on-line. Those web page authors need to brush up on their Communications degrees.

  20. Mr Cranky says:

    Single-negative checkboxes are bad.  Double-negatives are monstrous.  But I don’t think the first example is actually trying to be misleading.  It’s just the result of ignorance, and the fact that they certainly insist on the default must be to opt-in.  

    A smarter option would be to reverse the meaning of the check, default it to unchecked, and instruct the user to "Check this box if you do not wish to receive electronic communications from XYZ."  

    Arguably, that would be sneakier.  But at least it’s only a single-negative.  

  21. Miral says:

    It’s a checkbox without a caption with some accompanying descriptive text.  It makes a certain amount of sense in that context.

    The problem is that the descriptive text can be interpreted as if it were a caption, which introduces the double-negative and confusing meaning.

    If the checkbox were changed to have a conventional caption or the descriptive text were sufficiently separated from the checkbox, then it would be ok.

  22. James says:

    It’s illegal to create opt-out lists of people to send marketing materials to in my country. It has to be opt-in.

    Unfortunately that doesn’t do anything for spam or junk mail, since it’s rare to get unsolicited email from reputable companies :/

  23. Spike says:

    @Marc – Don’t you mean "I ain’t not never noticed it before" ?

  24. David Walker says:

    Similar to the Group Policy Options settings, I was working with Microsoft.SqlServer.Management.Smo.ScriptingOptions in Visual Studio yesterday.  The options include normal things like ANSIPadding, IncludeDatabaseContext, and IncludeHeaders, which you can set to True or False.

    The options also include this horrendous mess:

    NoCommandTerminator (True|False)

    NoExecuteAs (True|False)

    NoIdentities (True|False)

    NoVarDecimal (True|False)

    …along with many others whose name starts with "No".  I would like to strangle the person/department/Project Manager who wrote/approved those options.  

    As far as I know, there is no historical precedent in SQL options that says the options in SMO need to be worded in this way.  AAAAArghhhhh!!!

  25. Friday says:

    There are many undocumented (yet?) options in Windows that I love to discover with RegMon/ProcMon. The ones that start with "No" are in fact easy to understand. I just set them to 0 and never had any problems.

  26. - says:

    Well, it’s not that difficult. If it looks fishy, assume that the default setting is "spam me". Just toggle it.

  27. Stephen Jones says:

    —-"What makes it worse is that in some local spoken language (Reading, Berks, UK) the double-negative actually is a negative.  So even if you did have a degree in philosophy you’d still have to reverse engineer the dialect that the author was writing-in"—-

    Boolean or emphatic. In linguistic speak depends on the register.

    In practice there’ll be other clues all over the place.

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