The Free Trial Trap

Tips on designing a user-friendly negative option billing sign up flow


I signed up for the free trial of Hulu Plus a while back. The deal is, sign up and insert your credit card information, and we will give you 7 days of Hulu Plus. Great! But why are you taking my credit card information? Can’t you just ask me for it in 7 days?

They could, and some sites do (thanks Epix), but this is also a great marketing tool called Negative Option billing. They hope that you love the service and after the 7 days are over, you are seamlessly a paying customer. Or even better, you completely forgot you signed up and they just take your money.

“Negative Option billing refers to a business practice where a merchant provides a free trial or sample of goods/services, requires a credit card upon sign up and then bills the customer in the future unless they proactively cancel with the merchant.” — Braintree

Many sites do this. Entertainment sites like Netflix and Hulu, productivity sites like Dropbox, and learning tools like Treehouse. All extremely respectable and trustworthy sites. Recently, I was asked to design a free trial sign up flow that requires a credit card, so I searched the internet for examples.

My number one priority in designing this flow was to make the user feel comfortable and able to trust us. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some best practices to follow:

1. Remind the user why they are signing up for the free trial in the first place

2. Give the user reassurance that they can cancel

3. Use the button text “Start Free ____” instead of “Start Membership” or “Purchase”

4. Indicate how far along in the sign up process the user is

5. If there are multiple plans that the user can start a free trial for, make sure they know the differences between the plans.

Not one user enjoys these “free trial traps” but they are a necessary evil for the business’ bottom line. The one thing we can do as designers is make the user feel comfortable and reassured that they are not being scammed when they sign up for the free trial.