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Playing the shame game

Shame is a powerful motivator.

Shame is a great way to influence behaviour in people. You’ve probably experienced it during checkout processes online (“No thanks, I prefer slow shipping.”) Or, maybe from someone soliciting donations on the street (“That’s okay, I guess you don’t really care about the environment.”) It’s a concept in UX that has been talked about before. While using Uber on a recent trip to Portugal, I experienced shaming in UX first-hand and it worked beautifully. A quick, shame-induced conversion in the short term looks great and probably makes internal stakeholders happy. However, I’m not so sure it’s great for your prospects long-term.

It started with a very early morning request for an Uber to take me to catch an equally early train. Easily, the app found a driver, but whether it was because of laggy GPS, a bad connection, or something else – that driver wasn’t moving towards me at all. I was in a hurry, so I cancelled the trip and opted for a taxi I could hail the old fashioned way.

I was, as I expected, charged a fee for cancelling.

Step 1: Make the dispute.

I didn’t feel a cancellation fee was justified given the time I had to wait. So I used the “Cancellation fee issue” option, something I’ve used before when I felt it was warranted. I got a screen similar to what I was used to, asking to confirm why I am cancelling with some pre-written reasons. But this screen introduced something new, justification (from Uber’s perspective) for the charge. In this case, I waited 3 minutes and 8 seconds to cancel.

Step 2: Beginning to question my decision.

Fair point, Uber but from my perspective the driver didn’t move for those 3 minutes and 8 seconds. Whether it was an issue with the app or the driver actually didn’t move, it didn’t matter. I was in a hurry and I didn’t have time to troubleshoot what was going on. I let the app know my driver was taking longer than expected.

Then I was shamed.

Step 3: Retreat!

It’s no longer just Uber’s time of 3 minutes and 8 seconds. They tell me the driver’s name! Paulo drove for 3 minutes and 8 seconds. If I don’t believe them, they give the exact date and time and address, using data to make me question my own reality. Everything I thought I knew was up for debate now.

Then they put the cherry on top: Your cancellation fee allows Paulo to receive payment for their time and effort.

I’m not an ass. I want Paulo to put food on the table. The guy probably has a family. Maybe he’s paying for school.

Would you like to continue and request a refund?

Hell no. How in good conscience could I do that? Paulo got his €2.50.

Uber did a few things here:

Established empathy
By using the name of the driver and establishing some proof of work that was put into attempting to provide me a service. Once that connection was made, I wasn’t talking to a faceless app anymore.

Utilized dark patterns
On the last screen, “Cancel” is the primary CTA. This is the action Uber wants the user to take. “Proceed,” which is the action the user likely wants to take to get their refund, is secondary and certainly not emphasized. If you’re not paying attention, you could easily hit one CTA thinking it does something else…particularly if it’s 5 a.m. and you’re stressed.

Provided transparency
Usually transparency is great in customer service. Proactive communication and feedback as to what’s going on makes us feel good. In this case, it was used to suggest that the customer is not always right. They gave transparency into why I was in the wrong.

The majority of people probably do the same thing I did. No one wants to be the reason Paulo loses money. But what does that do in the long run? If you use shame to encourage an action you want now, it can cause behaviour you don’t want in the future. You’re left with a shame deficit that eventually has to balance.

People are good at finding alternate paths and solutions to their needs when one option no longer makes them feel good. Retain your customers without tactics like shaming. It seems costly now, but it’s likely cheaper than acquiring someone new after they’re gone.