Design Warp
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Design Warp

Cookies UX: just stop the madness

Phoebe from friends screaming ‘Stop the Madness’
Phoebe knows

I’ve been meaning to get around to this post for a long time but cookie pop-ups kept getting in my way. They get in the way of everything, those pesky little blighters.

When the EU changed its GDPR rules back in 2016, I was working in a content team who had to scramble to come up with simple and non-intrusive ways to make sure customers knew they could be tracked through the site as soon as they arrived. They could either accept by continuing onto the site, or read more detail about how their information might be used. It was a challenge, firstly because no one wants to interrupt the user’s journey and create friction, but secondly because our legal team wanted very specific wording which left limited scope to simplify. Lots of brands did come up with elegant solutions, from ‘toasters’ that disappeared on scroll, to making their cookie wording actually fun to read. It was a surmountable problem.

But over time the GDPR rules have tightened, and last year it became EU law for brands to make sure users give opt-in consent ‘after being provided with clear and comprehensive information’. And well, let’s just say some brands have interpreted this in some infuriating ways.

Far from giving clear information, many of the solutions seem designed to make sure we accept all cookies purely to escape the labyrinth of decisions presented to us. Here’s a couple of approaches you might be familiar with, from the good, to the bad and downright ugly:

1. The ‘escape room’

This approach as modelled below on is far from ‘pukka’.

On first approach the side banner appears with a simple green ‘accept’ button and a list of trackers all toggled to off. But look more closely and you’ll see the wording that tells you accepting automatically toggles everything to on. Sneaky. So is there an alternative? Not obviously. But scroll to the bottom and something which apparently seems disconnected says ‘Configure ad vendors’. Clicking on that takes you to a new screen where you’ve guessed it, there are more toggles. Even if you switch things off, there’s nothing that confirms whether any of your selections are saved. I feel like I’m trapped in a Crystal Maze room and have to get exactly the right combination to escape.

If you can even make it through these selection screens then you deserve the lasagne recipe you so needed. Me – I wasn’t that desperate.

Jamie Oliver cookie policy
Jamie Oliver — don’t go for the cookies

2. The ‘double bluff’

Have I accepted or declined? That is the question I ask myself when I see these kind of wordings. The tick boxes aren’t pre-selected, and yet I’m asked to save changes. I haven’t made any changes, is this not the default? If I accept all cookies do these become ticked? Gah, my head hurts.

‘Preferences can be changed at any time’ by finding the invisible link

3. The ‘innovative use of slider’

Defining your tracking in incremental amounts seems like a novel approach. In this Zoom example you can’t have advertising cookies without functional ones. The only saving grace here is the description on the side which does actually clearly breakdown what those cookies do, in pretty simple language. On their mobile version however, the confusion returns when presented with in or out options. It’s anyone’s guess what that could mean.

Zoom cookie policy
Would you like more or less cookies? Depends on the flavour
Zoom mobile cookie overlay
Cookie hokey cokey

4. The ‘you’ve gone too far now’

You’ll find the news outlet sites now list out the vendors they share data with (there are over 300 on Buzzfeed which you can accept, reject or toggle individually if you have the energy). But on The Guardian site I found it really hard to understand whether turning off the tracking for information, storage, personalisation, ad selection and content selection also stopped my data being shared with the vendors listed below (again well over 300 in the list). Such an overwhelming amount of information that has to be absorbed before saving your settings. Some websites have pages and pages of cookie information — one privacy section I came across was as big as the customer help section itself, and another (on Mindful Chef) was a 13 page PDF. Print that out for some fun bedtime reading!

Buzzfeed’s cookie overlay
Buzzfeed — who agreed to over 300 toggles?!

So is anyone doing it well?

Some sites do let you turn off all tracking as soon as you arrive on site, this is a great way to win your users’ trust. Others won’t let you proceed if you don’t allow tracking — it’s all or nothing, which as a user I resent. A good solution either lets me reject all, or at least easily and quickly decide what I want to be tracked. Preferably without fiddly toggles or multiple screens.

The simplest, clearest options, like this one on B&Q, have everything defaulted to off if you check the settings (but presumably switch on if you click accept cookies). This means it takes just two taps to turn off the tracking, one on change settings and one on save settings. I can live with that.

B&Q’s cookie overlay
Do it yourself – in two simple steps

Ikea also has a relatively straight-forward approach — allow all, allow selected or allow only necessary, all in the one banner. Far easier than flatpack construction.

Ikea cookie wording
It’s not beautiful but it’s simple and works, much like a Billy bookcase

Put simply you should be clear and concise, allow the user control, and make it simple. Nothing you wouldn’t strive for in any other user experience.

I appreciate brands need to be transparent about how they use data, and I also understand this is tough legislation to interpret and execute. But relying on user apathy and hoping they’ll just accept all isn’t good enough, at worst it harms the user experience and creates uncertainty and anxiety.

I’ve heard anecdotally that bounce rates and site visits have been hugely affected by these banners. It’s not really surprising, especially when you start adding in various sign-up modals, pop-ups and banner ads. By the time we’ve waded through the madness we’ve often forgotten what we were there to do in the first place or have just lost interest.

Far from being an afterthought, your cookie experience is the very first impression someone gets of your site, and if it’s bad, they probably won’t make it onto your site at all. Content designers and product designers have the skills to help legal teams and marketing teams make this a better experience — one which can evolve when legislation changes (as it inevitably will). No one minds cookie wording when it’s clear and simple, and straightforward to accept or deny. So show your cookie wording some love, and help Phoebe to stop the madness.



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Rachel McConnell

Rachel McConnell


Head of UX content at Flo. Previously Clearleft and Deliveroo. Author of Why you need a content team