Nurture trust through cost transparency

Susanna Zaraysky
Sep 23, 2020 · 7 min read

Design for trust by giving users more control over their data usage

Image for post
Image for post
Illustration by Taylor Herr, Next Billion Users visual designer

I wrote this story with Ramprakash Ravichandran, an interaction designer on the Next Billion Users team, and Ted McCarthy, a user experience researcher on internet access projects.

Internet access and cost challenges are common and can cause frustration, anxiety, panic, and — worst of all — lack of trust in your products. Before exploring design options to alleviate these problems, it’s important to understand the different ways access and cost influence how users interact with apps and websites.

Internet access varies along the lines of Wi-Fi access and post-paid and pre-paid mobile data plans.


In the United States, parts of Europe, and other countries, most mobile internet users rely on post-paid or contract mobile data plans. These users also have frequent access to broadband Wi-Fi networks at home, work, and public areas such as parks, squares, and plazas. The combination of post-paid mobile data contracts and Wi-Fi allow for continuous internet access.

Post-paid customers:

  • Pay regularly, such as once per month, for a guaranteed allocation of data (e.g. 5 GB) via a credit card, bank payment, or other automated bill pay
  • Are usually guaranteed continual connectivity
  • May pay extra money for additional usage above a cap or experience a slowdown of their internet speed


In the majority of the world, users rely on pre-paid mobile data plans, and may have little to no access to high-speed Wi-Fi networks. There are various forms of pre-paid mobile data plans:

  • Customers purchase a fixed amount of data in advance, such as $5 for 1 GB with a one-week expiration. Once the data is gone, the user tops up (refills).
  • Mobile data providers in much of South Asia (such as in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines) often allow users to refill their data packs using a mobile app or dialing code.
  • In much of Sub-Saharan Africa (such as in Nigeria and Kenya), customers top up by paying cash at neighborhood shops. If the consumer doesn’t have cash, or the shop is closed, the consumer does not know when they will have internet access again.
  • The access to topping up at a shop can vary dramatically depending on location, if the user has access to cash or an open bank and shop. Depending on these variables, a user may experience a delay in internet access from a few minutes to several days.

Variations exist. Some people in the US, Canada, Western Europe, and other regions face the same internet access issues as those in Sub-Saharan Africa or India. There are Kenyans, Brazilians, Indians, and Filipinos with easy access to the internet. People on short stays, such as vacations or business trips, may buy pre-paid data plans in countries where most residents use post-paid plans. However, when designing for truly global internet usage, it is important to be mindful of just how diverse internet access can be.

How does cost influence usage?

According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the prices for mobile data vary significantly from country to country and in some countries, can be prohibitively expensive. In 2019, 1 GB of mobile data in Argentina was equal to 0.66% of monthly gross national income per capita, whereas in Zimbabwe 1 GB was 10.06%.

Circumstances vary, but internet frugality and frustrations are similar. In countries, such as Brazil, where mobile data is expensive, but Wi-Fi is easy to find, users may complain that getting on the internet is costly when they can’t find Wi-Fi and they have run out of mobile data on their pre-paid plans. Across the world in Indonesia, people have relatively inexpensive data, but limited Wi-Fi. Indonesians may face challenges accessing the internet when they can’t find an internet shop to top up their mobile data.

Even when users have an affordable, large data pack, they still prioritize which kinds of content are worth spending data.

Expensive mobile data leads to:

  • Preferring apps with zero-rating or low data usage
  • Close monitoring of how much data apps and websites use
  • Borrowing data loans from carriers. Customers borrow data from their future pre-paid balance when they run out and pay a fee, sometimes as high as 20%.
  • Switching off mobile data at night, when out of the house, or anytime not actively in use
  • Sharing media and app files via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi direct apps like Files
  • Sharing data via hotspots

Being transparent about costs develops trust with your users. During a mobile data price transparency study in Ghana study, Google researchers piloted SmartBrowse, a prototype informing users of the cost of accessing a given web page prior to and immediately after incurring that cost. There was a control group that used the internet without SmartBrowse and another group that used SmartBrowse. The research findings demonstrated that “…compared with the control group, using SmartBrowse led to a significant reduction in internet credit spend and increased online activity among SmartBrowse users, while providing the same or better mobile Internet user experience.”

Strategies to minimize cost:

  • Design for intermittent, slow and offline connectivity
  • Use data compression to reduce image file sizes
  • Keep updates frequency low and size small
  • Explain the value of updates (such as “the app is now more stable on older Android devices”, instead of “v3.5.6 released and 5 bugs fixed”) so users can decide if it’s worth the data cost to update
  • Be transparent about your app’s data consumption
  • Allow user control over when your app can use mobile data vs. Wi-Fi
  • Be clear about how much data it will cost the user to view a video, download, or save a file, listen to music, and more
  • Display options for the user to decide whether to download or not


To minimize user frustration due to connectivity we’re sharing some examples of how to design apps that are transparent about data usage and give the user control about their data consumption.

Be transparent about data consumption

For large file downloads, clearly communicate the amount of data needed and give the user the option not to download.

message app with blurry photo
message app with blurry photo
This messaging example gives the user the option to download an image, by displaying a download icon with the size of the file, 24MB.

Provide flexible options that allow users to customize their features corresponding to how much data they consume.

1: Offline maps setting that Maps will download over Wi-Fi 2) Map of Pune, India
1: Offline maps setting that Maps will download over Wi-Fi 2) Map of Pune, India
(1) The Google Maps app’s “Offline maps” feature allows users to save multiple maps for offline consumption, clearly indicating how they will update over time. (2) When selecting a map, the map area UI allows flexibility by showing how much data the area would consume when downloaded.

For high quality media streaming, offer options to save mobile data, or alert the user when data consumption reaches specified thresholds.

1. Data saver On and Off radio buttons 2. Data alert radio buttons for 100Mb, 500MB, 1 GB or Off 3. Whale and diver
1. Data saver On and Off radio buttons 2. Data alert radio buttons for 100Mb, 500MB, 1 GB or Off 3. Whale and diver
(1) Android TV’s Data Saver helps extend watch time by adjusting video quality when using a mobile hotspot. (2) Data alerts prevent the excess usage of data when a user is on a limited data plan. (3) Data alert notification shown while watching TV content once the specified limit is reached.

Enable control over data consumption

A user may wonder if a video is worth the data it will cost to watch it. Reducing video size is becoming common practice. The New York Times reported that various video streaming companies have reduced video file sizes to account for high demand over the past few months.

Offer options to download large files or stream content at different levels of quality. Some users are on limited data plans or on throttled plans that initially offer one internet speed and then slow down. When possible, offer user control over data consumption options, clearly labeling the data cost of each choice.

1) Background image of Android 11, YouTube premium notification 2) YouTube Music ad with image of person smiling
1) Background image of Android 11, YouTube premium notification 2) YouTube Music ad with image of person smiling
(1) The YouTube app’s Premium service offers the choice to save videos in varying qualities: High (720p) or Medium (360p). (2) The YouTube Music app’s Premium service allows saving music videos in varying qualities (High or Medium), as well as providing an “Audio Only” option.

Allow users control over connectivity and data management settings, like media quality or Wi-Fi connectivity.

While offering a Wi-Fi-only setting is useful, be cautious of enabling this by default as not all users regularly access Wi-Fi. This default setting could keep the app from connecting to the internet.

1. Choose download quality selection radio buttons 2. Choose download network radio buttons
1. Choose download quality selection radio buttons 2. Choose download network radio buttons
(1) The Google Play Movies app allows choosing download quality in High Definition or Standard Definition while describing their benefits, “Better quality” and “Faster, saves space”. (2) The app also allows users to choose which network they would prefer to download the movies in, “Only on Wi-Fi” or over any network.

Designing for different cost scenarios may make your app more attractive to the millions of people who are using the internet to work from home and users for whom internet access is becoming a precious resource. Flexible and transparent apps may instill user trust and loyalty. When users know that they can use the apps with different levels of internet access and affordability, they may use the apps more frequently and recommend them to friends and family. Respect the user and respect the opportunity to build trust with your users with wide design cost options.

Screenshots courtesy of the Android TV, Google Maps, Google Play Movies, and YouTube teams.

Additional Resources:

Google Design

Stories by Googlers on the people, product, and practice of UX at Google

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