The Rise of the UX Torturer

What is a UX Torturer?

The UX Torturer is a new and emerging role in the field of UX. Whereas the typical UX Designer is a one-trick pony who can only improve the user experience, the UX Torturer specializes in degrading the user experience to maximize profit. The reasons for doing so are simple:

  1. Companies need to convert users from the cheap (or free) tier into the premium tier so they can make more money.
  2. Building advanced features to upsell is too hard, and nobody wants more features anyway; they just want good UX on the basic features.
  3. Therefore, companies need people who can focus on crippling the UX of the cheaper tier.

UX Torturers in Action

So that all sounds great in theory. Let’s take a look at some real world examples. Comments Section

Slate is an online news magazine, primarily ad-supported. Their site was a fairly standard layout with the article on the left, comments section below it, with a sidebar of ads.

Recently, though, they changed the way comments are displayed. Now the user must click a button to show comments, which appear in a modal overlay, like so:

This overlay has a number of delicious usability problems. First of all, it only actually appears when it feels like it. Then, you have to choose where to rest your mouse cursor. If it’s on the overlay, it’s in the way of the comments you are trying to read. If it’s off the overlay, using your mouse wheel pointlessly scrolls the underlying page and not the comments. All in all, the new comments format was universally reviled.

Having effectively tortured their free user base, Slate rolled out their paid “Slate Plus” offering. Here is an excerpt from their pitch page describing what you get:

Sweet relief, if you will only but open your wallet! Excellent work by Slate’s UX Torturers.

Amazon & ComiXology

Amazon recently acquired ComiXology, a digital comic store, despite the fact Amazon already sells digital comics on for lower prices. What could their strategy be?

The ComiXology app has the experience you’d expect from a comic reader:

  • the image is scaled to fill the screen
  • support for pinch to zoom
  • support for both portrait and landscape

Overall, the UX was perfectly fine.

Reading a comic from on the Kindle app, on the other hand, is pure torture:

Comic in Amazon Kindle app

The image does not fill the screen, the app doesn't support landscape orientation, and you can’t pinch to zoom. (It does, however, support a more limited zoom, so the comic was technically readable.)

I asked a comic fan about it, and he had this to say:

kindle reader for comics is AWFUL

I bought the first issue of the new sandman through kindle

I hated it so much that I bought it again for comixology

Amazon’s UX Torturers were so effective that not only did he pay more for the same thing, he paid twice. Bravo, Amazon.

Free-to-play Gaming

Free-to-play gaming is the major leagues for UX Torturers. Many of these games introduce artificial wait times for tasks to complete, and then sell players power-ups to remove those artificial wait times.

Dungeon Keeper upsell screen

The above screenshot comes from Dungeon Keeper, a game with such excruciating wait times that British authorities recently declared it was misleading to even call it “free-to-play.” Regulatory interference aside, many of these titles have gone on to make enormous profits through the exquisite pain they inflict. No wonder that this industry employs many of the world’s leading UX Torturers.

How to Become a UX Torturer

By now, you are wondering “How can I, too, torture my users for fun and profit?” The key is to inflict just the right amount of pain. You can visualize this on the “Shuffleboard of Pain” diagram below:

Shuffleboard of Pain

The puck (marked “P”) represents the level of pain you are inflicting. The goal is to get it into the green zone representing just the right amount of pain to monetize your users. If you fall short and remain in the yellow zone, you have not achieved your goal but you can at least try again. However, if you push too far and fall off into the red area, you will lose users permanently.

The diagram also demonstrates how our predecessors, medieval torturers, faced the sames issues and how their outcomes map to ours. Just like for medieval torturers, experimentation is critical. What works in one scenario may not work in another. You may find your users can be quite resistant.

However, do not get discouraged. Remember, you are the modern incarnation of a long and storied tradition. You are no mere UX Designer, faffing about with no measurable ROI. You are here to extract value from your victims. You are a professional. You are a UX Torturer!



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