Deceptive UX patterns in Coursera’s enrollment ‘deadlines’ and ‘starts’ [micro-anecdotnalysis]

Summary

After learning about deceptive patterns in UX on Coursera, I bathed in irony when I noticed how the learning platform makes it appear users may miss a course if they do not enroll by a certain date. In fact, a course starts (and stops) whenever a user chooses. By creating a false sense of urgency, Coursera may boost short-term activity, but it comes at the significant long-term cost of undermining users’ trust in the platform.

Finding

Coursera communicated false deadlines in an email and on the landing page for a course. The email message read: “Make sure you don’t miss the enrollment deadline.” A button on the landing page of the course was labeled with: “Enroll / Starts Aug 25.” Here are snapshots:


The confusing email.
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Coursera landing page for course with deceptive UX pattern in button label.
The oddly labeled button on a course landing page.
(Click on image to enlarge in new tab)

The messages triggered time-wasting, frustrating actions, such as:

  • searching to verify the info;
  • checking my calendar to see if I needed to shift activities to accommodate this sudden and unexpected deadline;
  • exploring my memory to see what happened the last time I signed up for a course.

I don’t have an unlimited supply of time and I don’t like businesses wasting it to boost their KPIs. Coursera’s decision makes me reconsider whether I’ll use the platform again.

Recommendation

Change the language that creates a false sense of urgency or remove it:

  • In the landing page example, remove “Starts Aug 25” from the button. That would clarify that users can choose to enroll whenever they want. Alternatively, if text is required, perhaps use this: “Start right now!”
  • In the email example, Coursera could also simply delete the text. The communication would remain clear and rid itself of the deception that there is an enrollment deadline. If text must be included, try this: “Start today to keep your momentum!”
Conclusion

UX professionals, much like journalists, need to think of every way a phrase might be understood and account for the consequences of those interpretations. Businesses that confuse or deceive users won’t last. They must use unambiguous language and remove unessential text to provide high-quality user experiences that get people where they want to go efficiently, pleasantly, and confidently.

Author’s note: This post is something I call a “micro-anecdotnalysis” to signal the limited and anecdotal nature of the research behind the UX analysis.

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