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Out-of-Control Tipping Is a Tech Problem

Payment apps and touch screens have made it easy for merchants to ask us for preset gratuity amounts. We don’t need to succumb to the pressure.

It has also become a tech problem that is rapidly spiraling out of control thanks to the proliferation of digital payment products from companies like Square and Toast. Since payment apps and touch screens make it simple for merchants to preset gratuity amounts, many businesses that didn’t ordinarily ask for tips now do.

I have felt the pain and awkwardness of seemingly arbitrary tip requests. I was recently taken aback when a grocery store’s iPad screen suggested a tip between 10 percent and 30 percent — a situation that was made more unpleasant when I hit the “no tip” button and the cashier shot me a glare.

When a motorcycle mechanic asked for a gratuity with his smartphone screen, I felt pressured to tip because my safety depended on his services. (It still felt wrong, because I had already paid for his labor.)

I shared these instances, along with stories I had read all over the web about consumers outraged by abnormal tipping requests, with user-interface experts who work on tech and financial products. All agreed that while it was good that payment services had increased gratuities for service workers who rely on them, the technology created a bad experience when consumers felt coerced by businesses that didn’t normally expect tips.

“If your users are not happy, it’s going to come back and bite you,” said Tony Hu, a director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who teaches courses on product design. “Ideally they should be tipping for an excellent experience.”

Based on my conversations with design gurus, there’s an upside to all of this. If we focus on the tech design aspects of tipping, we can overcome the pressure of tipping in the same way that we grapple with issues like digital privacy. Let me explain.

A key driver of the success of digital payment systems, design experts said, is that they take advantage of a design principle that influences consumer behavior: The default is the path of least resistance.

Payment technologies allow merchants to show a set of default tipping amounts — for example, buttons for 15 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent, along with the “no tip” or “custom tip” button. That setup makes it simplest for us to choose a generous tip, rather than a smaller one or no tip at all.

A Square spokeswoman said the company’s payment technology does not allow merchants to preselect a tip amount (except when tips are automatically added for large groups in a restaurant, an industry standard). But in my experience, some of Square’s copycats allow merchants to do so.

A broader issue remains: When businesses that don’t ordinarily get tips use technology to present a tipping screen, they require the consumer to opt out.

On the bright side, the gratuity screens are not considered deceptive, said Harry Brignull, a user-experience consultant in Britain, because the “custom tip” and “no tip” buttons are roughly the same size as the tipping buttons. If the opt-out buttons were extremely difficult to find, this would be an abusive practice known as “dark patterns.”

Still, if people feel unfairly pressured into tipping in situations where gratuity is unnecessary, government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission should examine that concern through a regulatory lens, Mr. Brignull said.

The F.T.C. did not immediately return requests for comment.

I recommend approaching tipping the same way that you might approach technology: Be wary of the defaults, and decide when it’s right to opt out.

The same principle can be applied to tipping in the digital age. When a business asks for a tip, that technology is nothing but an emotionless piece of software showing numbers. You, too, can be neutral and objective when deciding whether to tip and, if so, how much.

“They’re objectifying the transaction when the whole point of tipping is to personalize it,” Mr. Selker said. “Your mind-set should be is this really what you want to do?”

The best way to avoid feeling controlled by a screen, he added, is to tip in cash whenever a gratuity feels necessary.

If you’re unhappy about how a merchant uses tech to demand tips, you can also boycott it (though this might be impractical now that so many businesses use this tech). That’s not too different from the action of people who deactivated their Facebook accounts when they felt their privacy was violated.

Even design experts are occasionally caught off guard by the defaults on tipping screens. Mr. Hu of M.I.T. said he had recently been presented with tipping options of $1, $3 and $5 after a $10 Uber ride. He chose the middle button, $3, before realizing he would normally tip the driver 20 percent, or $2.

Category: Technology

Source: NYTimes Technology

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