The REAL reason Apple owes $32.5 million

At this point, I’m sure most of you are aware of Apple’s recent settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where they’ve agreed to pay $32.5 million in refunds for kids’ app purchases without parental consent. The FTC’s complaint, and the resulting settlement and media coverage, all revolve around the fact that Apple doesn’t inform parents that entering their password in the company’s App Store opens a 15-minute window in which children can incur unlimited charges with no further action from the parent.

I read all this, and I could only shake my head. Not at the situation itself – at the fact that so many intelligent people have missed what was right in front of them. The lawsuit, the settlement and the media coverage all fail to identify the real issue, the real reason all of this happened.

The real issue is that you cannot have an iTunes account without a credit card attached to it.

If either of my thirteen-year olds want to download a free app, they cannot do so without my credit card on file.

If my nine-year old wants to use an iTunes gift card she got for Christmas, she cannot do so unless my credit card is on file.

Ask yourself: does it make any sense that downloading free apps, many of which are designed specifically for children, requires a credit card? Does it make any sense that even if you have a gift card, which is already paid for and backed up by hard currency, you still need to provide a credit card? Would that ever happen at any other retailer you’ve ever used, online or offline? Or, gee, is free stuff actually free, and you only provide payment details when you’re buying something that costs money? Amazon, anyone?

As such, the real issue is the fact that at best, Apple has failed to design the App Store in a way that matches the context in which people use it. At worst, I, as a parent, am in a position where I am essentially forced to be liable for the naturally questionable judgment of my kids.

And it is painfully obvious that Apple either does not recognize this as a problem.

Or worse, does not care.

Scenario A: Apple doesn’t get it.

From a purely physiological standpoint, kids are not going to pay attention to the obtusely-worded prompts. They’re not going to readily discern between an in-app prompt that will cost Dad money and a freebie. Partly because the in-app ads are designed to appear to be part of the game. They’re not going to carefully consider the ramifications of any of these actions. Why? Because they’re still learning how, essentially. Their brains are still forming; their ability to reason is a work in progress.

And any UX or UI designer worthy of the title knows that. Decorators, on the other hand, don’t give things like this a second thought. And as I’ve watched Apple evolve since Jobs’ demise, I get the very distinct impression that the decorators are the ones in charge over in Cupertino right now. If any of the design team that made Apple a force for positive UX/CX are still there, they’ve been silenced. They are now subservient to decorators who believe that the primary action on the screen should be a text link, not a button.

A text link, mind you, that’s the same size as the 20 other text elements around it. Because Jony Ive and co. seem to think it’s OK that the primary action, the thing the user is there to DO in the first place, should only be identified by a shade of color so subtle that even those of us with excellent vision and no color-blindness can’t tell the difference between things you click and things you read. I could (and probably will) write a short novel about this issue alone.

Scenario B: Apple could care less.

It’s also entirely possible, as I said above, that Apple doesn’t care. That this is essentially an intended approach – to both strategy and UX – to increase profit via what they feel is a negligible risk. It’s the old “it’s not wrong unless you get caught” approach that a whole lot of companies still take. Until somebody sues us, let’s get all we can from every possible avenue. And even if they do sue us, the payout is negligible and strategically capped due to our carefully, legally obfuscated user agreements.

Lots of organizations have done this, and lots more are still doing it. Lots of organizations still don’t realize that UX design isn’t something that IT should be responsible for. But here’s something that they all have in common: they’re losing market share.

They’re losing to pissed off customers who have woken up to the fact that their decades of loyalty are not only being taken for granted – they’re being used to take unfair advantage.

They’re losing to competitors with younger, smarter folks at the helm who realize that at the end of the day, we all just want to be treated with respect.

They’re losing to organizations that invest in the true value of design, in people who do a hell of a lot more than make things look pretty after the programmers are done. Who, instead, choose to place trust and responsibility — and most importantly, authority — in people who get the fact that good user and customer experience starts, runs and ends with respect for the people who use your products.

Every day, Apple, just like every business, has a choice: do the right thing and don’t settle for the easy explanation, or lose your place on the mountaintop. It happens a lot faster than people think.

Fifteen minutes, my ass.