Rampant In-App Purchases: a failure of design?

Earlier this month, an angry father of 2 brought a lawsuit against Apple for allowing children to make purchases without their parents’ knowledge or permission. Children have been racking up large bills of real currency through in-app purchases of game currency. The lawsuit argues that these games, which are free to download, use a “bait-and-switch business scheme” and that Apple is not doing enough to prevent minors from making unauthorized purchases.

Smurfberry Shop from Smurf's Village app

Smurfberry Shop from Smurf's Village app. Prices range from $4.99 for 50 all the way up to $99.99 for 2000 Smurfberries

With a lawsuit like this, I question where the line is between user responsibility and company/developer/designer responsibility. I suppose we’ll have a legal line drawn, but what does this mean for designers and developers?

I can see both sides of this issue. On the one hand parents need to know that giving their kids a connected device like an iPod touch gives them access to buying content. It should be the parent’s responsibility to ensure they set limits, and Apple has provided multiple ways to do this through passwords, parental controls, and gift cards.

On the other hand, the way an Apple product works is not always entirely clear. Their designs try to give the user exactly what they need when they need it. In this case, they provided a 15 minute window in which the iTunes password authorization remained active. That’s great for someone like me, who wants to look around the app store, update my apps, and maybe download something new all in the space of 15 minutes. I’d hate to have to enter the password with every update and purchase. However, I could see how a parent might download something for their child (using the iTunes password) and then hand the device back to their child without thinking what might happen in the next 15 minutes.

It’s nearly impossible to design for every use case. As a designer, I try to think through as many edge cases as I can, but in the end I still usually need to make a compromise: give the most common use cases the best possible design, even if the user experience may suffer a little at the edge cases. In this example, Apple may very well have thought through this use case, but decided on a design that would best fit the majority of their market. Unfortunately, it seems like some app makers were able to take advantage of this, marketing directly to children.

Should Apple be held responsible? I don’t think so. Could they have helped prevent this with a different design? Perhaps. By keeping the user’s logged-in status completely invisible, it gave parents no way to know that they were still logged in. Moreover, you can’t easily log out or remove download authorization. Providing some kind of indicator that you are logged in and able to purchase content would give parents at least some indication that the iDevice is not ready to be handed over to one’s kid. It might be as simple as an icon in the status bar (although easy to overlook) or a more prominent mode shift (watch out, you’re logged in!). In this case, providing more information to the user would actually be better, and may make the user feel more in control, which is always a good thing when it come to your credit card.