Why is managing subscriptions on Apple products so difficult?

It's hard to argue that Apple doesn’t have a strong and trusted brand as a hardware company. But as a services company they've been a mess. They sought to correct that with the announcement of several new services on Monday. Apple put a stake in the ground: They are a company that provides easy-to-use, best in class services, that prioritize privacy and straightforward pricing. That resonates with me. I'll buy that. I already do.

Yet there's one detail they need to be paying more attention to: how services and subscriptions are managed. It's pretty frustrating when you get a notice that you've been charged for a recurring payment and you don't know where to go to make a change. It's a huge problem that's solvable with better information architecture.

Tim Cook on stage presenting that services should be Easy to Use, Attention to detail, Private and Secure, Expert Curation, Personalized, family sharing

How things work now

I imagine that the organic growth of their services has lead to a current experience that is complicated, inconsistent and generally un-Apple-like. Most recurring payments are managed in two key locations—and the first challenge is knowing which one you need. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to concentrate on the iPhone experience – it's Apple's largest customer base and most critical audience.

iCloud Storage

There is "iCloud Storage," which is a monthly subscription. iCloud Storage is cloud storage space offered at three storage tiers. The space you purchase is shared between iOS Backups, Photos, Messages, and files created by your installed apps. Here is the path to manage your iCloud Storage account:

Launch the Settings App > Tap [your name or face] > Tap iCloud > Tap Manage Storage > Tap Change Storage Plan > Select a Plan


Apple treats most recurring payments as subscriptions, whether it's a third-party subscription service enabled by an app, or a headline service like Apple Music. All subscriptions are listed on one screen and this is how you get there:

Launch the Settings App > Tap [your name or face] > Tap iTunes & App Store > Tap [your Apple ID] > Tap View Apple ID > Authenticate > Scroll Way Down > Tap Subscriptions > Tap the Subscription you Want to Manage

The choices on that screen directly affect people’s bank accounts. It's inexcusable that it's that hard to find.

Both of these pathways are seriously convoluted and I'm sure most people just give up and turn to Google. I'm willing to bet Apple is aware of how bananas these pathways are because, on the relevant support page, they provide a deep link to the buried screen, rather than explaining the click path.

A screenshot of the Apple support page for how to view, change, or cancel subscriptions

This is a big problem for their brand aspirations because Apple wants to corner the market on 'trustworthy'. But, the previously described processes are so bad, and so out of alignment with that goal, I’m left to think it’s a strategy. If it’s hard for customers to unsubscribe, maybe they'll give up. Maybe, that's a cynical take, but the alternatives are they don't care, or they aren't dedicated to making real improvements. None of those options are flattering. 

My suggestion on how to improve them

While Apple takes a moment to reboot their service brand, I encourage them to simplify managing services and subscriptions. Being transparent about cost and providing users intuitive controls is a design detail they need to get right no matter how much they need to refactor to do it.

A user should be able to manage services and subscriptions in one location that is accessible on the primary settings screen. Currently the choices on the first settings screen are contextually grouped. A new "Services & Subscriptions" link would fit nicely with "iTunes & Appstore" and "Wallet & Apple Pay" in the "Stuff I Pay Money For" group.

A redesign of Apple's setting app first screen

Bonus oddities that irked me as I wrote this article

iCloud Photos

[Spoken like Seinfeld] Is it a service or an option? The thing that bugs me most here is that iCloud Photos is described as a standalone service. It's extremely marketable and critical. Seamless and worry-free photo and video management is a huge component to iPhones "just working," but you turn it on by casually toggling a switch. Once on it can force a user to upgrade their iCloud Storage plan, which is free at first. iCloud Photos is a headliner service, but the way you interact with your account is convoluted. It's like an option with benefits. Turning on iCloud Photos and choosing a plan should be a more explicit group of actions.

Apple Music or iTunes

These product names are intrinsically linked and casually interchanged within the UI. It's time to draw clearer lines for the customer and get consistent with the nomenclature.

Subscription List

Once you find it [rim shot] the list is fairly well organized. But the indicator of an auto-renewing service and one set to expire is text only. A small label that says either "Next Billing Date..." or "Expires on..." is the only indicator. There should be iconography that indicates auto-renewing or monthly charged subscriptions.

Settings Face Click

The inclusion of an identity card at the top of settings, the choices that are within it, and how it is coded as an interactive option are all terrible. Do over. Call a mulligan. Never again.

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published March 29th 2019