Stopping Unwanted Subscription Fees
Small digital businesses often find it hard to keep track of all the products and services that they have subscribed to every month. All they see is money deducted from their accounts, sometimes for services that they don’t need anymore. I wondered if there could be a way to help small businesses keep track of and manage their monthly subscriptions.
This is a design brief from UX challenge that I undertook as a personal project to document my end-to-end design process.
As of December 2019, there were 1.23 million employer businesses in Canada. Of these, 1.2 million (97.9 percent) were small businesses. On average, from 2012 to 2016, the contribution of small businesses to GDP was 41.0%. For this project, small businesses are defined as establishments with 1-99 paid employees. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many small businesses have gone digital and are leveraging digital tools to communicate with customers, collaborate internally and perform a range of other marketing activities. Small business owners and employees are notoriously busy, often juggling multiple tasks at once, making it difficult to stay on top of everything without unnecessary stress. While there are many digital tools out there that can help even the busiest small businesses get on top of their schedules and make the most of the time they have, often the number of tools and services they subscribe to go unchecked as there is no one person keeping track. To better illustrate the problem at hand, here is an anecdote from a company I previously consulted with as a freelance designer:
The business owner (Sallie) had created a community for expecting and new mothers had a strong community of engaged followers on her website through years of fostering relationships. She saw an opportunity to open an online store and provide her community members with merchandise. To help her with this, she hired an e-commerce manager (Ruby) to take care of all things related to the online store. Ruby set up a system to build a newsletter audience and send email communications. She signed up for the Essentials plan on MailChimp using the company credit card.
After a few months, Ruby had to leave the company due to personal reasons. The new hire was not made until a few months later, so the new e-commerce manager (Bonnie) had to rely on Ruby’s notes to understand existing processes. Ruby’s notes seemed incomplete and haphazard as the business did not have any systems in place for onboarding. Bonnie, frustrated with the lack of direction, created new systems and methods to handle the growing business and did additional research to find digital tools better suited to the online store’s current needs. Unaware of the existing Mailchimp subscription, Bonnie signed up for a marketing tool called Sendinblue, which offered similar services as Mailchimp.
For the next 7 months, the business paid subscription fees for both Mailchimp and Sendinblue. On the 8th month, Sallie saw the recurring charge on the company statement and enquired with Bonnie about what the charges were about. Bonnie realized that they were being double billed for the same service and informed Sallie that they did not need the Mailchimp subscription anymore as they were using Sendinblue to manage all their email communications. They finally cancelled their Mailchimp subscription that they hadn’t been using for the past 7 months.
The goal of this project was to design a solution for small businesses to better track the tools and services they sign up for so they are not paying charges for services that they no longer need.
I worked on this project in July 2021. I dedicated 10-12 hours per week for 4 weeks to this project. I conducted interviews with owners and employees at digital businesses to collect data about their motivations and behaviours towards using digital tools. I analysed the data to uncover insights and translate concepts into features that addressed these motivations and behaviours. I defined the product keeping in mind user goals and created frameworks and executed mock-ups and prototypes to develop ideas and give life to my vision and strategy.
What’s the problem?
At the start of this project, my goal was to help small businesses avoid paying fees for products and services that they were no longer using. With no access to pre-existing insights apart from a few scattered personal experiences, I decided to explore why and how small businesses were signing up for digital tools. I wanted to understand their motivations and pain points and better understand the range of issues they face.
What’s already on the market?
To compensate for the small sample size of my user research, I supported my primary research with secondary information that I collected through meticulous searches on Google. I researched the tools available on the market that helped businesses track budgets and expenses. I researched the features of these products to pinpoint missing features that could better inform my solution.
I interviewed the COO of a startup with ~40 employees, a managing director of a digital business with 4 employees, and the office manager at a small e-commerce business with 2 employees. The interviews lasted approximately 20 minutes each and I asked them open ended questions about their processes to understand their motivations and behaviours.
“We often come across services we haven’t used in months when we do our annual budget reviews. But, we would have paid for all those services every month.”
“Most subscriptions cost below $20, so it might look like a small amount, but if it’s 5 subscriptions that the business doesn’t need anymore, that’s $100 every month, for no reason!”
“We value our employees’ time more than anything else. So if there’s a tool that will help them do the job much more efficiently than they’re currently doing it, we’ll buy the tool.”
“Unless you meticulously examine credit card statements each month, and are aware of all the services used, price bumps on services—or free trials automatically converted into paid subscriptions—are easy to miss.”
“Communication is often stronger within teams, so other teams or accounts are usually unaware of what the recurring payments are for and everyone just assumes it is something the other team is using.”
“My colleagues and I have multiple responsibilities that go beyond our job titles. I handle social media too. So I have created accounts with multiple online tools that help me create videos and posts and manage our posting schedule. Some are free, some are paid.”
Quotes from the people I interviewed to collect data about their processes to understand their motivations and behaviours while signing up for subscriptions in the workplace
The free trial fiasco
The free-trial model on most products and services, in particular, are the ones that require businesses to keep an eye on periodically and take actions accordingly, since failing to do so can result in unnecessary spending on subscriptions for products and services they do not even use. Mastercard has a policy requiring merchants to get a cardholder’s approval at the end of a trial before they start billing, but that’s just for free trials.
The communication break
The people in the organization who sign up for products and services are often not incharge of managing expenses. For example, the marketing team may sign up to content creation products and email marketing tools, while the sales team may sign up for CRM tools. Neither of these teams are aware of what the other team is using and this often results in multiple subscriptions of the products that offer similar features. There is a break in communication between people and teams that leads to an inefficient use of resources.
Tracking for businesses
Subscription tracking apps currently on the market are built for individuals and not businesses. These apps are also built for mobile devices while work in a business is carried out on laptops and desktops. Expense tracking software for business do not solve problems such as being mindful of free trials or address the even bigger communication break between teams.
The need for a centralized system
During the interviews, it became clear to me that even in small businesses with close to 50 employees, employees often juggle multiple roles. While there is cross collaboration between people and teams, communications are often focused on the end results and not about the products and tools individual contributors use to get there. Growing small businesses were burdened by the lack of a centralized system and processes in place to track all the tools, products, services and applications they were using to help them work efficiently.
Saving time > Saving money
Before I could jump into designing, it was important to define success and understand what the metrics would be to measure success of this product. Based on the insights gathered during the interviews, I created user personas and mapped out user journeys to identify pain points.
Individual Contributor Ida
“I’d love to train team members to use Canva so that they do not have to rely on me for extremely small design tasks!”
About: Ida is the only designer in the marketing department. Some of her tasks include designing company presentations and promo material for marketing. She also handles all of the business social media accounts.
Goals & Ambitions:
- To get promoted to senior designer and manage a marketing design team.
- To upskill and learn variety of industry standard tools and software that would help her do a better job.
- To empower other members of the marketing team with resources that would improve their workflows.
- Having to do extremely small design tasks for other team members that break her workflow.
- Having to work with tools that are not best suited for the job at hand.
“My onboarding process has been a roller coaster ride. I wish my manager provided me with better documentation on what goes on in my team and what is expected in my role!”
About: Nathan is a new graduate who joined his company as a customer support executive last week. He is young, ambitious and tech-savvy. He learns new software easily and understands complex concepts effortlessly.
Goals & Ambitions:
- To gain experience and learn on the job.
- To be identified as a valuable team member.
- Using inefficient or outdated methods to perform a task.
- To having clear instructions on what needs to be achieved.
Multiple Hat Martha
“An important part of my job involves coordinating with many employees for simple but important tasks. I wish there was a better way to do this!”
About: Martha is the office manager at the small business she works at. Martha also takes care of all the HR needs of the 17 employees in the company and helps with sending over receipts and invoices at the end of every month to the company’s outsourced accountant.
Goals & Ambitions:
- To efficiently manage all her responsibilities.
- To move on to a managerial position as the next step in her career.
- Having to reach out to multiple employees with a single question, because no one is able to direct her to the right person.
- Having to keep track of multiple logins to subscription services to download receipts and invoices at the end of every month to send to the accountant.
Keeping track of short term subscription needs
“I can edit this video on Headliner. We just need to upgrade to the “Basic” plan for one month, so I can export all our edited videos without the watermark.”
An important way that employees at small businesses juggled their responsibilities was by leveraging the vast array of products and services available to them. For example, it made more sense for members of the customer service team to purchase a monthly subscription to a video creation software to edit their tutorial videos for customers, instead of adding to the workload of the only designer on the team. This allowed the customer service team to produce video tutorials quickly and efficiently. However, since video production is not a recurring responsibility of the customer service team, someone needed to be responsible to ensure that the subscription services were cancelled when the need expired.
Lack of documentation and set systems
“Not sure what this charge is for. I don’t use this service. Assumed it was someone else on the team.”
In small business, it’s often one person taking care of multiple responsibilities. When this employee leaves the company, unless they have put in the time and effort to document all their process and tools, the onus falls on the new hire to “figure it out”. During this changeover, often subscriptions go uncancelled.
Efficiency lined with inefficiency
“What’s this for? Are we still using this?”
Small businesses subscribe to various products and services to boost efficiency within teams and employees and make an impact on the bottom line. However, there are two key pain points that need to be addressed.
- Not cancelling subscriptions that are no longer used adds up over months and can have an impact on the bottom line.
- If employees are unaware of what products and services are being paid for and available to use, they are not making best use of all the resources available to them.
Streamlining workflows without noise and chaos
My analysis showed that the problem was not just about managing and tracking subscriptions for expense purposes, but there was a bigger problem of “clutter” in workflows in small businesses. Not cancelling unwanted subscriptions, was simply a side effect of the noise and chaos that existed in the workflows on small businesses due to the lack of dedicated people to manage these processes.
REFRAMING THE PROBLEM
The lack of a centralized tracking system leads to clutter, inefficiency and eventually has a negative impact on the bottom line.
A unified subscription tracker that allows small businesses and its employees to manage and track monthly subscriptions across teams.
Goodbye manual tracking
Trackit features a Chrome extension that layers itself onto web pages. This extension auto-identifies signups and pops up with pre filled information that can be added to the Trackit dashboard.
Personalized dashboard and extension
Small businesses can personalize their Trackit dashboard and extension with their brand colours and logo making it feel like it was built just for them!
Track monthly spend on subscriptions
The dashboard provides an overview of the company’s monthly spend on subscriptions and shows how it compares to previous months. Users can also view a month on month expense comparison for different teams in the organization.
Inbuilt password manager
The Trackit Chrome extension has a feature that is similar to the Google passwords manager, and saves login information to the Trackit dashboard.
HOW I GOT THERE
Designing an efficient subscription tracking system for small businesses
Three primary questions informed my design strategy:
- How do I design a solution that is simple, convenient and accessible?
- What contexts need to be considered?
- What does an efficient subscription tracking system look like?
Early on, it was important to understand the different factors that may influence the user experience. I mapped all the possible concepts that could be temporary or permanent challenges that could affect the way a user interacts with the product. The goal was to design a solution that could scale and extend to any combination of these contexts from the outset.
Working backwards from perfect
I considered what the ideal product should do and I worked backwards to figure out how I should approach the product’s design. During my interviews, I found out that one of the organizations was using Google sheets to manually track all the products and services they were subscribed to, along with login details, and another business adopted a similar manual tracking method on paper. While both organizations understood that this was not the best solution, they liked the convenience of access for different team members (either by sharing the Google Sheet or by passing around the book with all the details of subscriptions and logins). My goal was to design a system that offered businesses and employees the best way to track subscriptions as well as collaborate with each other by sharing key information about the subscriptions. Three key design challenges emerged:
- How might I remove the need for manually tracking subscription services?
- How might I design a solution that will help small businesses track both paid and unpaid subscription services as well as manage logins?
- How might I help new hires access and understand the different products and services that the company is already paying for and hence available to them to improve their work processes?
Keeping in mind the time and resource constraints of this project, I wanted to narrow down on a solution that had the biggest potential to scale, even if it had some limitations in the scope of this project. I gauged that a Chrome extension could be a potentially powerful solution to the problem at hand. There were three important considerations that influenced my decision to design the solution in the form of a Chrome extension:
- Google Chrome is the most popular web browser in use today by a large margin. Google Chrome owns over 60% of the share in browser usage.
- Chrome extensions are known to assist in customizing the Chrome browser to meet business preferences and needs and avert from using traditional or separate apps that are no longer productive.
- Businesses using Chrome as one of their default browsers bring much more personalized and results-oriented experience for users, thanks to chrome extensions.
Having identified the direction of the final product, I started creating wireframes to evangelise ideas and visualize user flows.
THE DRAWING BOARD
One of the design challenges I had identified was to allow new hires access and understand the different products and services that the company is already paying for. This called for a dashboard of sorts. I started researching existing Chrome extensions and software that were making use of tracking systems or centralized systems.
Two products stood out to me the most:
- Sciwheel, a unified workspace for scientists to collect, write & discuss scientific literature. It features a web-based application, a browser extension, powerful word processing plugins and a mobile application.
- WordPress Users and Blog Features
- Google Password Manager
Drawing inspiration from the interfaces of these digital products, I began sketching wireframes.
A unified tracking system for tools and services
My research insights revealed three major issues that needed to be addressed to provide an overall improved user experience:
- Manual tracking was completely dependent on the individual who was signing up for the subscription. If this individual forgot to manually add the subscription, its cancellation date, login details etc to the manual tracking file, the subscription goes untracked.
- When an individual in the organization took initiative to track subscriptions and take action during price changes and end of free trials, they often had to reach out to multiple teams and individuals to identify which subscriptions were being used by whom.
- When subscriptions and logins were tracked manually on a digital platform such as Google Sheets, users could search for the logins they were looking for easily. However, if it was being tracked on paper, it was a painstaking process to shuffle through pages of entries to access the information needed.
Based on these insights, I arrived at three key ideas:
- Stop expecting employees to manually add details of subscriptions to a database. Do the heavy lifting for them and give them an auto-filled form to approve to add to the database.
- Add a user feature so that the Chrome extension can automatically add details of which employee signed up for a subscription.
- Save login and other information automatically and give employees the permission to share this information with other members of the organization.
Working with Google Material Design
As I started working on the high fidelity mockups for my prototype, I had to think about whether I wanted to reinvent the wheel and work from scratch on the UI or use an existing design system with established rules, guidelines and components.
The product I was designing was a Google Chrome extension, an application that would be tightly integrated with Google Chrome. It made sense to use Material Design to ensure that the extension seamlessly fit in with the Chrome interface.
The product I was designing saved sensitive information such as user passwords. Using Material design would allow users to subconsciously attribute a level of trust and security to the product beyond its station because they will associate the extension with Google.
Lastly, I considered the time constraints of this project. By using Material Design, I could save a lot of time because I didn’t need to develop a new visual language and I could sidestep common design pitfalls.
Empowering small business to take control
During the research phase, I understood that the challenge was more than stopping unwanted subscriptions fees. There was a need for a solution that could cope with small business and start-up chaos and contribute to easy and efficient communication and collaboration.
Employees resorted to manual tracking methods, where the responsibility to track a subscription was completely on the individual signing up.
The Chrome extension is designed with a feature that mimics the Google Passwords Manager, that auto identifies sign ups and asks the user if they’d like to save the login details. Trackit works on a similar concept where the extension identifies sign ups and pops up with auto-filled, editable fields that the employee can use to add the new subscription to Trackit. The employee can also choose to share login details with other employees and team members by selecting and adding this information within the extension popup or on their dashboard.
Employees were unaware of who managed or used a certain subscription and had to reach out to multiple people to access the information they were looking for.
When an employee adds a new subscription to Trackit through the Chrome extension, their user details are recorded within the details so that other employees and management can reach out to the right person if they need any information about the subscription. Employees could also set reminders to cancel at a particular date to avoid unnecessary charges. Reminders would be visible to all employees who had login access to a subscription.
Employees were often unaware of what tools and subscriptions were being used within the organization. New hires found it difficult to access this information.
A dashboard that provides an overview of the different categories of subscriptions along with a filter system that helps employees search for tools that could help them with their task at hand. Employees could view all the subscriptions on the “Subscriptions” tab and use the sort and filter features to locate the subscription they are looking for.
Trackit would have employee profiles (similar to HR software like Rise People) that would allow easy management of subscriptions requested by an employee. This would also make it easier to review if any subscriptions needed to be cancelled when an employee left the organization.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
An afternoon of guerilla testing
The mock-ups and prototype I had created so far had limited functionality and were the first iteration of a concept for a collaborative subscription tracking software for small businesses. I wanted to know whether my concept was moving in the right direction and if there was scope to explore this idea further in the future. I opted for the simplest form of usability testing- guerrilla testing. I spent a Saturday afternoon outside the Tim Hortons at CF Richmond centre with a box of Timbits to collect feedback about the prototype. The goal of this usability testing session was collecting personal opinions and emotional impressions about the concept and prototype. I recruited 8 random participants, out of which 5 were women and 3 were men. All participants were between 26 and 37 years old. Two participants held managerial positions, while the other 6 were individual contributors. Participants worked in retail, tech, health & beauty and cleaning and maintenance.
The only qualifying questions I asked were if they were currently working at or owned a small business with less than 100 employees and if they had 10 minutes to be a part of the testing session in exchange for some Timbits. I explained to the participants about Trackit and what I was doing, what I wanted them to do and then provided them with a scenario.
You are in charge of creating the company quarterly report. All your data is in an Excel sheet and you need to analyse the data and add your insights to the report. You conduct a Google search to see if there are any tools that would help you perform the task efficiently and you find a software that does exactly what you want. You want this software just for this report and you know you will probably not use it once you’re done with the report. So, you sign up for a free trial with the company credit card, thinking to yourself that you shall cancel the trial in time before it expires and you are charged.
I recorded participants’ comments as voice notes in Whatsapp on my iphone and sent these to myself. I was able to tag the voice notes and add additional comments about the participant for identification and analysis.
Participants had some trouble interacting with the prototype due to its limited functionality. Participants had questions about the features and were interested in learning more about features that they could not interact with in the prototype. 3 out of the 8 participants found the passwords manager feature very useful, noting how they often had to chase down people to access logins to certain software. One of the participants mentioned how they would like Trackit to send email or text notifications when action was due, so they didn’t have to check the Trackit dashboard frequently. One participant said “I’m always posting in our Slack channel asking about who is using certain subscriptions, so I can cancel it if no one uses it anymore. This app would really save my time and let me just ask that one person who signed up for the subscription!”
Participants showed excitement about the prospect of having a software that could track and manage subscriptions for their small business. The prototype showed promise in solving a pain point that most small businesses that use technology face. A more robust prototype and lab usability test would help gather in-depth information on how real users interact with your product and what issues they face, along with investigating the reasons behind user behaviour.