Respect the User

Please briefly indulge me as I complain about how Bad Thing is bad.

Popups suck. Whether it’s a desperate plea for newsletter signups, pestering for a paid upgrade, or just a plain ol’ ad, there’s nothing more instantaneously annoying than something rudely intruding between you and the thing you were trying to look at. But there’s a special place in UI Design Hell for the popups that try to hide a their close button— doubly so if it’s on a touchscreen, where there’s no chance that your big dumb finger is going to be able to nail that tiny little button on the first try.

Most will just file this experience under “mild annoyance” and move on, but I’d like to take a moment to point out the inherent weirdness in this situation.

The purpose of a button is to be pressed (duh). Go find any half-decent set of user interface design guidelines and you’ll see plenty of recommendations for making buttons clear and easy to use. And yet here someone has gone and made a button that’s notably difficult to press. It’s not like this was an accident; someone make their user interface intentionally bad.

If I were to suggest a golden rule for software, it’d be respect the user.

For software, what that ultimately means is respecting their agency. If the user wants to do something, then the software should just do it— no more, no less, and no backtalk. Disrespectful software, then, is software that tries to manipulate or subvert the user’s intent.

Look for it, and you’ll see that disrespectful design is everywhere.

  • Websites that obnoxiously beg you to stop what you’re doing and download their mobile app instead (the term for this is a “dickpanel”)
  • Commonly-used functionality moved to out-of-the-way corners of the UI (either to discourage its use or to get you to look at something else along the way)
  • Autoplaying videos which forcibly follow you down the page as you scroll, because there is no escape
  • Convoluted, multi-step, labyrinthine opt-out procedures
  • Websites that technically don’t require an account to use, but arbitrarily degrade the experience if you aren’t signed in
  • Useful push notifications bundled in the same setting as spammy promotional notifications
  • Basically anything on

How does this happen? While there’s plenty of just plain bad software out there, disrespectful software is different. This isn’t the result of incompetent developers, or a team that’s in way over their head, or even just an honest mistake.

Someone, somewhere, is just being a dick.

Running any piece of software, or even just visiting a webpage, is a display of trust. When you do so, you are temporarily loaning its author your computer’s hardware.

There’s no intrinsic reason that a computer has to do what you tell it to do. People don’t control computers, software does— and chances are, you didn’t write it. But we’ve all generally agreed that it would be a bad thing if the computer deletes a file without you clicking the “delete” button first, so software generally does what you tell it to. But that’s more of a social contract than innate requirement, and sometimes software does things that you most definitely don’t want it to do. Normally we call that “malware”.

Disrespectful software isn’t malware, but it only just barely toes that line. It won’t forcibly make the choice for you, but it will try to “subtly discourage” you from choosing the “wrong option”. It maintains the facade of legitimate software, acting like its creators truly do respect and value you as a user, but they don’t— they just don’t want to get caught looking that way.

“Sign up for my newsletter or I won’t let you see the rest of my website” is still enough to turn most away. But hiding an obscure little “No thanks” link lends you just enough legitimacy to get by.

There’s just such a strangely uncomfortable feeling that comes from dealing with this kind of software, like you’re feeling the machine’s will press against your own. It’s a reminder that you’re only nominally in control.