The cookie-less experience

Last year I made a public commitment to reject all cookies. I had just assumed it would entail simply clicking 'no' instead of 'yes'. I was wrong. Here are my findings as a cookie-rejecting consumer and what we can learn as brands to improve our cookie consent habits... by Rhiannon Hanger - Lead Consultant, Data

Why reject cookies?

Each year I set a challenge to improve my digital habits – they range from the obviously sensible (start using a password keeper) to the experimental (try not to buy anything from Amazon for a year). 2022 was the year I chose to reject all cookies. I have an interest in data privacy and ethics and I had spent a lot of 2021 working with clients to migrate and fix their consent management tooling. It had brought into focus how varied enterprise approaches were to consent management and how much room for interpretation there was in the law, so I wanted to see what this variation meant as a consumer.


The 3 approaches to consent

Firstly, let’s talk about the different types of consent approaches out there

  • Accept or leave
    Many sites don’t have a reject button. Some have the illusion of a reject button, but upon clicking ‘settings’ or similar there is a content page explaining how to reject cookies through your browser. Others are not so polite and only provided an accept feature – as in accept or leave my site. 
  • Rejection is hard
    These enable rejection but made it difficult to do so. The various techniques employed ranged from making the reject button hard to find, or the wording confusing, to making the user ‘turn off’ every cookie category or cookie individually. Some had cookies set to ‘no’ as default but legitimate interest must be turned off manually option-by-option. Another trick is to bring up the settings panel but hide the status of each category in an accordion so you have to expand and collapse each section to check what is active.
  • A simple no thank-you
    These are sites that offer, in their easiest form, a simple ‘no’ button as clear and easy to click as the yes button. Some go a bit further and have a few tick boxes presented on screen to ‘reject all’ or untick a small number of options and ‘save settings’. It means that rejection is not a ‘second-step’ and it’s clear and obvious how to reject. 


What did refusing cookie consent feel like as a customer?

I no longer engage with publishers and websites where I cannot reject cookies on their site

It started as keeping true to my experiment goals that I would avoid websites I cannot reject cookies on, however, now it has become a principle. It creates an immediate state of distrust with the brand and I now intentionally skip over search result listings for brands I know I cannot reject cookies with.

If a site makes it difficult to reject cookies I feel frustrated by the time I’ve entered the site and any other experience interruptions feel more intrusive, such as pop-ups or layout shifts.

I hadn’t really thought about how rejecting cookies would slowdown my ability to get to information. Website owners who spend time making it hard to reject cookies, must be making a decision that access to data is more important than the experience of their customers. It doesn’t leave a nice feeling knowing a brand wants my data more than they want me as a customer, even if it’s true. Most big data collectors (think social networks or Google) at least provide a convenient or novel experience for the luxury of harvesting our data (not that I’m endorsing their tactics!).

Nearly all website owners outsource their cookie consent management to a 3rd party

It’s perfectly normal for businesses to use software to do a specialist job (and indeed we’d be out of a job if they didn’t), but it’s surprising how many brands have not taken time to modify and personalise these messages. This means that the first interaction with a website is not with the website owners, but with a 3rd party. That’s millions of pounds of carefully crafted experiences being gated by generic, unsexy pop-ups.

Very little UX thinking has gone into the consent tooling – the ability to make selections is challenging and this often jars with the experience of the website.

It is jarring if it’s clunky to select options for cookies and behind it is a nice shiny website. Worse than that though, consent managers often do not meet accessibility standards. What is also notable is the number of sites where a chat box or some other pop-up overlays the consent buttons, which puts into question the integrity of the visual testing. It feels clunky and gives hesitation and frustration, not the emotions that should be elicited when attention or money is sought.


What does this mean for a website owner?

  • The cookie consent tool is the first interaction users have with your website: take the opportunity to make it feel authentic to your brand and welcoming.

  • Customers have the right to choose – if you have to trick them into giving over their data, or make it hard for them to opt out – does this low trust tone meet the brand positioning?

  • Test the experience of landing on your site from different devices without accepting cookies. How many decisions are you asking a user to make before they even get to your content? Are these decisions easy to make or is everything overlapping and hard to interact with?

  • Cookies are dying a rapid death, it is only a matter of time before most browsers and hardware fully block them. Few brands have such a dominance that they can afford to be turning customers away at the door over a dying feature. It’s time to consider why not offering an easy reject is so fundamental to your operations.


Need help changing the trust dynamic with your customers? Our data team is available for a conversation