What I Learned about UX from Mr. Robot

Elliot Alderson, the unmoored, sympathetic genius at the center of USA’s hacker drama Mr. Robot hears voices. Not unlike Tyler Durden in 1999’s Fight Club, Elliot suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder, or, more colloquially, Multiple Personality Disorder. Elliot speaks to (and acts as) both himself and his deceased father, the so-named “Mr. Robot”, throughout the show. Luckily, Elliot speaks to us, the audience, as well. This second-person narrative voice, his “Hello friend” monologues don’t just invite us — the audience — to see his world, but cast us a character, a participant, in the unfolding drama.

Traditionally, a second person narrator tells you what you experience and how you experience it. The narrator draws conclusions and and makes directives for you, the reader, viewer, or user. For this reason, the second person narrative voice is infrequently used in literary fiction and television. It’s highly suggestive, demanding tone isn’t particularly well suited to nuance and varied interpretation. For these same reasons, the second person voice is frequently employed in advertising.

The use of the second person voice in advertising is designed to invite the viewer to more deeply experience the product; to feel like an active participant in a static medium. But simply using the word “you” isn’t enough to deeply engage the viewer or user.

The second person voice is designed to make the viewer feel like an active participant in a static medium

In Mr. Robot, rather than simply casually addressing the audience Elliot demands responses that cannot be given. “Are you freaking out?” he asks desperately, “Tell me the truth. Were you in on this the whole time?” To which we — the audience — also desperately search our memories for answers to his questions: was that conversation from a few episodes back more meaningful than it seemed? Is something very different than it seems? Suddenly, we’re on the hook for answers to what are, in this case, largely unanswerable . But with this move, Elliot plucks us from the sofa and onto the sound stage, casting us an additional character in the show.

Web products are increasingly using the second person voice to directly address their users. But maybe the best products will differentiate themselves by requiring conscious interaction, creating sites which look and feel unique based on the individual choices of each user.

Of course, numerous sites customize themselves based on user data, but this process remains largely opaque: sophisticated algorithms draw inferences based on browsing data, providing links to similar products or articles based on our viewing history and past habits. In this sense, we all experience websites which look and feel unique because of our active, individual participation. But though the users generate the data, they’re largely removed from the process of how that data shapes their experience. What would happen if we peeled back the curtain to reveal some inner workings of our products, allowing users more flexibility to customize their environment? For instance, allowing them to view (or edit) some of their data points, or providing more robust customization options. Just as Elliot pushes down the implied wall separating himself from the audience, web products could invite more interactivity by pushing down the wall separating users from the machines which structure and present the products they’re using. You might really like that kind of thing.

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