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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

Mini-masterclass on sludging when offboarding customers

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

I recently wrote about the differences between nudging and sludging so I was primed to notice them when I tried to cancel a subscription to a product. The experience turned out to be such a sludge extravaganza I felt compelled to share the experience and showcase the opposite of how behavioural insights should be used.

First, a quick recap on nudges and sludges

The simplest definition is that a nudge is "any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without significantly changing their economic incentives" (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) and sludges are "frictions in any process that impedes end users, and ultimately reduces welfare" (Soman).

The definition of nudge rules out economic incentives, it can include incentives and costs of other kinds. Examples of psychological force used in nudging include:

  • the emotional tax of a graphic health label making you feel uncomfortable

  • the non-material constraints of changing your behaviour to fit in and avoid social stigma

  • deliberately making something harder to understand

  • using defaults to leverage your psychological state

More holistically, you could think of nudges and sludges as a symmetrical relationship consisting of relative friction: "nudges reduce frictions associated with a specified option, while sludges increase frictions associated with a specified option" (Mills, 2020). But since the definition of good is subjective, we can instead think about this in terms of the desired outcomes and how fair it is to each side in a given situation.

For example, do both the the consumer and the company benefit from the outcome being nudged towards, or are the benefits entirely on the company's side? The first situation is win-win (Pareto nudges) and the second is a win-lose situation (rent-seeking nudge).

Why this case study?

Of course, companies using friction to their own advantage is nothing new - for example, Ryanair has been infamous for it's parade of dark patterns for years. The relationship between dark patterns and sludges is a bit of a Venn diagram - all dark patterns are sludges but sludges are more than just dark patterns!

So why am I particularly incensed about this example?

Tractive's product is a GPS tracker for pets and company's lofty mission is to "strengthen the bond between pets and their owners by leveraging technology to ensure a healthier, longer and safer life together".

Two of their core values include seeing the business through the customer's eyes as well as being honest and transparent to customers - using sludges and dark patterns is the opposite of that. Dishonest and misleading could some words one might want to use here, although I can think of others too.

There is also a personal element to this because it casts my profession in a very poor light. If you're observing this from the outside, examples like these make behaviour change in general seem manipulative and unethical whereas in reality my guess is this is the handiwork of someone who read two pop science books and stumbled headlong into a Dunning-Kruger hole.

With that said, let's dive into my delightful off-boarding experience with Tractive!

Back to sludges

Like nudges, sludges are essentially four types of relative friction"

  1. Economic: changing the economic or material incentives

  2. Hedonic: changing the individual pleasure or comfort

  3. Social: changing the social or moral costs

  4. Obscurant: changing the psychological or cognitive burden

Let's look at how Tractive fared on these dimensions...

From the grouping we can see that they mainly use obscurant friction, with a little bit of hedonic and social friction thrown in - in these examples the line seems a little blurry since they are probably both.

It doesn't have to be this way

Of course, many companies seek to make a profit by any means possible but that isn't always the best long-term strategy.

Offboarding experiences matter because in any given industry, customers lapse or leave simply because their circumstances change either temporarily or permanently - if you part ways amicably and with good will, they are more likely to come back to you than if you take advantage of them their way out.

By a random coincidence, this morning I saw a related post on LinkedIn that was talking about the opposite: the great off-boarding experience with Spotify (shared with permission).

Easy to change my plan to a free one, clear navigation, friendly messaging. No hiding the cancellation options, making me feel bad, or scare-tactics, or dark patterns.

This is how it should be.

Do the right thing by using behavioural insights for good

To be honest, manipulating people might not seem so dishonest if you've bought into the narrative that we are all oh-so-irrational - I can see how it almost seems like a missed opportunity not to take advantage. Who's going to know? Definitely not those irrational, stupid consumers!


Using behavioural insights ethically is good business sense if you have ambitions beyond being just some fly-by-night shady street corner hawker and want to be perceived as customer-centric, honest and transparent.

If in doubt, ask who benefits - and if the answer is just you, think again.

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