Intentional Subscriptions — Ideas for better subscriptions on iOS

I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to subscription pricing for apps on iOS. While I don’t currently make use of it in any of my apps, it seems to be the business model most aggressively being pushed right now. It is clearly a powerful tool for building a sustainable income. I mean what could be better than money just continuously pouring into your pocket, right?

One of the main reasons I have stayed away from them so far is that there is always something tricky about making subscriptions feel good for customers. One of the reasons so many businesses like them is that you set it up once and then the customer doesn’t have to continue taking action to keep paying you. Which is great as long as the user wants to keep paying you, but super sketchy if they don’t.

There is a concept in user interface design called the Principle of Least Surprise, where you want to design systems in such a way that they surprise their users least. I think a similar concept applies to subscription pricing. The ideal (from a user friendliness perspective, not best business perspective) system for customer subscriptions should never surprise the customer with a charge. The customer should always be happy to see a charge appear on their credit card.

In other words, their subscription payments should always be Intentional.

To that end I’ve come up with four ideas that I think would greatly improve the intentionality of iOS subscriptions:

  • Whole Screen Confirmation with clear pricing and trial explanations
  • Opt-in Only Trial continuation
  • Notification Center renewal reminders
  • 24-hr Grace Period for renewal cancellation

Whole Screen Confirmation with clear pricing and trial explanations

The current subscription flow in iOS relies largely on policy enforcement to create a user friendly, and clear explanation of what a user in signing up for. Apple provides extensive documentation about how developers may structure their calls to action around subscriptions. And then App Review enforces these as best they can.

However, no policy based solution will universally prevent developers from trying to skirt the rules and confuse, trick or cajole customers into signing up for a subscription. Look no further than the dozens of reports David Barnard has so carefully collected of the countless ways developers come up with to get users to sign up for subscriptions. Most with the similar goal: make it unclear what a user is actually signing up for and what it will cost in the long run.

Instead, I think Apple should use a different payment confirmation window for subscriptions. This should take over the whole screen and ideally do things that only an iOS system window could do (like show the users home screen or similar). It should then:

  • Clearly show what the user is buying, and what app is asking for it.
  • Clearly show the recurring cost of the subscription
  • Clearly show the annualized cost of the subscription
  • Clearly show when the next payment would occur
  • Clearly explain how the trial for the subscription works
  • Include a big, obvious Cancel button
  • Provide all the mandatory Terms & Conditions text

This approach would both relieve developers somewhat of the complexity of complying with Apple’s requirements and also provide an unequivocally clear and intentional experience for customers to start their subscription.

Opt-in Only Trial continuation

It is very common to provide an initial, free trial period for a subscription wherein the user can kick the tires and try out what they are signing up for. This is an excellent marketing tool because the user can see exactly what they would be paying for and sign up for their subscription with confidence that it is what they want.

I believe that all trials should not automatically start a paid subscription upon the completion of the trial period. Instead, this behavior should be opt-in by the user only. Otherwise, the user should be prompted to start their subscription the next time they launch the relevant app. If a user does want to sign up automatically after their trial ends, they can be given this option when they sign up, but it should never be on by default.

Automatic trial conversion feels like a dark pattern to me, that is setup to benefit from the user forgetting they signed up for the subscription and getting at least one charge from them. It is in many ways the opposite of an Intentional Subscription. I have no doubt that businesses make more money with automatic conversion but it also leads to customer surprise. Customers shouldn’t have the burden of canceling it before conversion, apps should have to win their attention and desire to continue.

Notification Center renewal reminders

Currently you get an email from the App Store a few days before your subscription renews, or you can view your pending subscriptions from a buried area of the App Store app. Neither of these provide users with clear, surprise free choices. I think the App Store app should add a Notification Center entry for your renewals for the few days before a subscription renews. These should be actionable to confirm or cancel the subscription right from the notification. This is the place where alerts appear in iOS, and since the subscription began on iOS it seems the obvious home for them.

24-hr Grace Period for renewal cancellation

Refunds have always been a confusing thing on the App Store. Whether or not a customer can get one is largely unclear and seems based on the decision of the Apple customer support representative you end up with. Subscriptions currently also suffer from this problem.

I’d love it if renewals came with a 24-hr grace period where I could cancel a subscription payment. This again removes a bit of the burden from customers to be on top of their subscription renewal timing. So when they see a receipt appear in their inbox, or get an Apple Pay notification that the purchase occurred they should be given the option to cancel it if they in fact don’t want that service anymore.


I absolutely think that subscriptions will and should be a significant part of the business model of most apps on the App Store. They provide a delightfully symbiotic relationship between developers and customers, where developers are incentivized to continually improve their apps and are rewarded for this effort.

They also provide a massive opportunity for abuse and scams. While I’m sure the above suggestions wouldn’t fully address the problems, Apple would always need to be vigilant against abuse, I think they would go a long way to developing a culture of trust for customers. Ultimately, I believe that the more ‘tricky’ aspects of subscriptions that boost revenue are all short lived and make customers more reluctant to sign up for them in the future.

What I want are customers who have only good experiences with subscriptions. Where every time they see a subscription charge, it is entirely expected, intentional, and indeed desired. That is better for Apple, better for Developers and better for Customers.

David Smith