This UI Change Could Have Prevented Patreon’s Fee Change Debacle

Fixing Patreon's Fees

Patreon announced a new fee structure last week. It was intended to prevent the problem of “double charges” and allow them to roll out Charge Up Front to all users. People hated it. A lot. Today they canceled it, as I suspected/hoped they would.

How bad was it all? My campaign lost 10% of Patrons in under 24 hours, and I strongly suspect I won’t get all of them back. And from posts on Twitter, I was hardly the only one who lost a substantial amount of Patrons. That’s really not fun to experience, especially as someone who had nothing to do with the actual change at hand.

Patreon Screwed Up

I could actually write several articles on all the little problems with their proposed changes and their reasoning. But the biggest problems were such:

  1. Patreon moved the fees from Creators to Patrons, and added a 35 cent flat fee that drastically affected $1 pledges. This strongly discouraged Patrons from pledging the most common pledge amount of $1.
  2. Patreon did this because they came up with a brilliant new system that multiplied the amount of fees Patrons would have to pledge. This destroys the incentive to pledge to lots of creators.

That’s basically the coolest thing about Patreon gone: the ability to support lots of creators with small donations.

I’ll let Patreon’s own charts speak for how terrible the basic concept of their change was:

The current way things work, fees pooled at end of month. Like, you know, most subscription services, utilities, etc.
Fee Hellscape, featuring levels from John Romero

No, I didn’t post them out of order and swap the labels: Patreon’s whole plan centered around drastically increasing the amount of fees Patrons pay, hence the urgency to move fees to Patrons instead of Creators.

In the meanwhile they destroyed one of their coolest features; now, if you pledge to multiple creators on Patreon, your money actually goes farther than it would with individual donations off of Patreon because the fees are pooled against one transaction instead of N transactions. Patreon’s status as a middle man works as a positive instead of a detriment!

Arguably as bad as the fees themselves, the initial announcement of the fee change didn’t even mention the alleged core reasoning behind this change; Patreon wanted to move fees to a monthly anniversary date instead of first of the month. This was to solve the Charge Up Front situation. We learned about that aspect a couple of days later in their damage control post. This is a feature that I’ve literally never seen anyone ask for, they seem to have made this decision out of whole cloth.

Why did they do this? I’m not a mind reader, but it does fit in with a really nasty trend in what I like to call CorpoRate User Experience Design, or CRÜD for short, which you can think of as basically the opposite of regular UXD.

Automation Over Sense

Patreon had an information problem on their hands: Patrons were (allegedly) angry after being “double charged” when pledging to Charge Up Front Creators, which is currently a system where you pay once the moment you first pledge to a Creator, then again the first of every month.

So if you pledge December 31st you get charged again on January 1st too. Keep in mind that at worst, this was only ever a one-time “double charge”, and that Patreon pledges are generally voluntary pledges expressly for the purpose of giving someone money.

A reasonable thing to do would be to inform the user of this issue and allow the user to make their own decision; it’s their money after all. If they want to wait, let them wait, if they want to pay now, let them do it.

But automation is so hot right now. After all, what could be a better user experience than having everything done for you, without asking for it? Instead of asking you, I’ll assume you said yes. Isn’t having words put in your mouth fun? I’ll just assume you said yes. See, automation is fun, you said it yourself!

Patreon was trying to help, but they didn’t want to let you make the choice. They should they had the best solution for everyone. They shouldn’t have been more wrong, and this is a case study in how not to assume your customer’s intent.

Some things shouldn’t be automatic. Most anything involving money tends to be a particularly poor target for making users’ decisions for them. Messing with money tends to be when users to go from swearing out loud at their screen to swearing out loud at support personnel over the phone.

So let’s explore a solution that moves the decision back onto the person paying money.

A UI Solution To A UI Problem

Let’s start with Patreon’s premise that double charging is an extremely important issue (I’ve never heard anyone complain about this). There’s two core problems here:

  1. Patreon is incredibly worried that the revolutionary Charge Up Front system whereby people actually pay before receiving a product, is confusing users and alarming them with “double charges”.
  2. Patreon is stupid and allows people access to rewards before they’re charged money. I’ve never seen any other service do something like this and I have absolutely no idea why this is not considered the core problem rather than evil “double charges”.

Let’s address the first point, since it’s a simpler change. Here’s a mockup made in just a few seconds with Chrome’s dev tools based on the existing checkout:

I’ve added a little pretend warning below the “current charge” reinforcing that, in this hypothetical situation, the user is going to be charged again only a few days after this transaction. The Delay Pledge button gives the user a choice between paying now and paying later, so “double charges” are now up to the Patron’s choice.

Note the “Today’s Charge” and “Your Next Charge” boxes are already on the current checkout page for Creatures with Charge Up Front enabled; they already did this(!), but I went a bit further. Without hard data I can’t really tell whether their initial information is enough, but I strongly suspect that with some testing they can drastically reduce the amount of unpleasantly surprised users.

Depending on how critical users really consider this “double  charge” situation to be, they could even have a modal pop-up that asks for explicit confirmation when you’re within X days of the billing cycle. I’m sure they have data on exactly how few days remaining results in the most support cases. A modal seems like overkill to me, but so does everything Patreon has done in the last week.

To solve problem #2, the “Delay Pledge” button was added to allow the user to say “well, I want to pledge now, but I don’t want to be double charged, so charge me on the first”. This helps users avoid a double charge, but perhaps more importantly it strikes at what I feel is the real issue Patreon currently has.

Don’t Give People Stuff They Haven’t Paid For

This is the actual Systems problem that Patreon should have solved: they give people crap they haven’t paid for. Who does this? How did this survive so long?! Ahem.

As a reminder, currently if a Creator doesn’t have Charge Up Front enabled, you can just pledge any amount, even $10,000, immediately get access to all of their Patron Only posts for that amount, post those on Twitter for all to see, then cancel your pledge and peace out without any consequences whatsoever.

If that sounds bad, it’s because it’s bad. Even a small campaign like mine had a problem with troll who repeatedly signed up and canceled for my highest tier.

I fortunately had access to the Charge Up Front beta and decided if they’re going to troll my campaign they’ll at least pay money for it. (Surprisingly, they did). It’s also why I make my rewards little bonuses rather than “I’ll go broke if these leak”-ses, so I don’t have to worry when they inevitably leak.

Pledges as Preorders

Currently a pledge is just that; a pledge, a promise, an offer.

You’re not actually held responsible for that amount of money until the first of the month, Charge Up Front aside. Pledges are promises, when they should be preorders. With a preorder, you don’t still get the product if you cancel the payment. You say “I’ll pay”, but if you don’t pay, you don’t play. That is perhaps the most absolute basic aspect of a transaction.

This is what the Delay Pledge button I added to the above mockup does; it allows Charge Up Front to exist while still allowing a Pledge to wait for the next month. Then, all Patron has to do is actually note which of its Patrons has actually paid, a rather basic feature I must say, before allowing them access to paid-only posts. And if you don’t want to wait, you pay up front. Win-win!

It’s really so obvious I assume there must be some reason Patreon didn’t want to do this, but there’s no way it’s worse than the firestorm Patreon unleashed by announcing (and retracting) this ridiculous new fee structure.

I strongly suspect Patreon has fallen on the sword of not wanting to overcomplicate things, and instead made a system that’s far more complicated and annoying than the one they attempted to avoid.

Show Me The Fees

Back to fees for just a second: When I first read Patreon’s new fees, the idea of moving the fees to the Patron actually made some sense; a lot of people genuinely don’t seem to realize that a $1 pledge doesn’t actually equate to a dollar in the creator’s pocket. That is a problem to potentially be solved!

However, this too could be solved with informational changes rather than structural. This could include showing the user the fee/take home percentage that the Creator will get, and/or optionally giving the Patron  the option to pay the fee for the Creator.

I didn’t mock this one up because I’m lazy and I don’t think it’s the real reason Patreon tried this whole fiasco anyway. I think it’s an interesting problem space, but it doesn’t warrant a change on nearly the scale Patreon attempted.


Patreon has some extremely basic solutions at hand to a rather overrated problem. Their attempt at overhauling their entire financial system rather than deal with an information gap between Patrons and the system itself is baffling and shakes my confidence in them as a company, both as a UX designer and as a Creator using their platform.

Hire more designers, Patreon, and trust your users more. And for the love of Pete, ask Creators before you do things that could massively harm our bottom lines. You gave us a two-week death-clock for a change you didn’t even need to make (and didn’t make!).

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