Honest interfaces.

Why and how I want to design honest interfaces.

Image from Beyond UI
“Because the web browser window replaced the cinema screen and television, the art gallery, the bookstore and the book, all at the same time, a new situation manifested itself: All culture, present and past, is filtered by a computer, with its particular human-computer interface.”

This extract from Lev Manovich’s The language of new media, introduced a new dimension of respect into my profession, and has driven my values approach towards design since I read it. I think is fair to say that I think of it in every project I do. The responsibility I feel while designing tools for people to interact with culture, in any of it’s manifestations, is overwhelming and stimulating.

Interfaces are the tool humans have to communicate with machines. Like any language, it is bidirectional, as it forms a dialogue. We often think of interfaces as passive systems, designed efficiently and transparently to allow us to access information or convey actions through them. A technological device is awarded with unerring mechanical characteristics, mathematical capabilities and infallible precision and accuracy, implicit in its engineering and explicit in its interface design. But as in any dialogue, information is filtered, sorted, prioritised, shown or hidden according to the interests of the parties involved. That’s why I find important to understand the interface as a dialogue, not a monologue.

Terms as user friendly never felt correct to me. Is not that I don’t share the understanding of the benefits of a user friendly interface, but it’s terminology always felt wrong. I always noticed some cynicism underlying some of the terminology used under interaction design practices. Engagement is it’s greatest exponent. I would like hearing more often terms like user respect, honest interface or accessibility on the design process. When I discovered Harry Brignull’s work with the dark patterns (we will talk about it later) I begun to use the term honest referring to interfaces. And I feel comfortable doing so.

I want to design honest interfaces. I honestly appreciate when someone at work says out loud that they don’t know something or that they’ve made a mistake. It’s part of life, and being honest brings me closer to it and makes it human. The machines are ultimately designed by humans, and neither of them are perfect. At the very least let’s make them honest.

Here are some factors that I consider relevant for designing a honest interface:

A honest interface should be accesible.

This is an ongoing matter on every company I’ve worked so far. There are always well intended designers trying to make interfaces accessible to all users, it just never gets to the top when it comes to prioritisation. But that’s not an excuse. Specially for me. I am an interface designer, and I have the power to make interfaces accessible. I can use accessibility as part of my inseparable tools to establish the dialogue with the user in the same way I use fonts and readability, shapes and semantics, colours and perception or animation and narrative. I have the responsibility to make it a non negotiable tool from my palette.

Adobe Illustrator offers a Color blindness color mode

A honest interfaces should make a responsible use of the interaction patterns.

The choice of each widget is directly related to the scope of action given to the user. Patterns are structures of widgets focused on simplifying decision-making and in some cases persuasive psychology.

Harry Brignull coined the term dark patterns in 2010. A dark pattern is

“a user interface that has been carefully built to manipulate the user, leading to doing things, such as buying insurance with your purchases or registering for recurring bills.”

Brignull in addition to opening a collaborative site with the intention of denouncing all these practices tries to answer the question: what drives a designer to develop interfaces that use these patterns?

“An aggressive working environment, an emphasis on conversion metrics, the widespread use of these patterns by major brands, and the fact that interfaces cannot be analysed grammatically”.

In this sense, an interesting proposal to eradicate these practices is to create a professional ethical code. The UPA (Usability Professionals Association) proposes a code of ethics based on three high level points:

  • Act in the best interests of everyone.
  • Be honest with everyone.
  • Don’t hurt and if possible provide benefits.

Brignull proposes to be more specific and to prohibit concrete design patterns through a professional ethical code.

Tristan Harris published in May a powerful and brilliant post named How technology is highjacking your mind, where he explains on detail the techniques product designers use to play with users minds.

They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.

The term used in the post is ethics; design ethicist, product design ethics. I personally prefer the term honesty. Ethics implies a system of conducts, while honesty is just about transparency and truthfulness.

Image from Beyond UI

A honest interface should respect the content and the user.

Interfaces, in many occasions are basically transparent tools to access content. If you create a scenario to increase the engagement of a user due to the way you articulate the interface, instead of due to it’s content, then you are making an exercise of manipulation and betraying the nature of the product. This can lead into undesired mutations. The auto play video feature by default can be an example. It’s not about the content, it’s about facilitating the no action, and relying on the laziness of some users to improve the product metrics. The consequence on doing so is turning a video on demand platform into a TV. I don’t choose my content anymore, let’s keep it rolling. Effort and quality vs brain inactivity and quantity.

Building a honest interface is showing respect for the user. If “all culture, present and past, is filtered by a computer, with its particular human-computer interface”, then, let’s build honest interfaces together, and respect each other.