Musings on Evil UI

I spent my weekend at HOPE, a hacker convention run by the good folks at 2600 Magazine. There were many interesting (and occasionally hilarious) talks on a variety of subjects, from the weirdest things you can send via the postal service to the basics of hacking DNA to a discussion of the GPS technology in NYC taxi cabs.

One of my favorites was called "Evil Interfaces: Violating the User". It was a taxonomy of manipulative UI methods that result from a situation where the goals of the designer are not the same as the goals of the user (for instance, they want you to pay attention to the advertising). The speaker, Gregory Conti, talked about how the most successful "attacks" result from an inversion of traditional UI design rules. So in some sense, it was a manual of "what not to do": distract the user from the content with motion or color, disguise non-content as content, add extra barriers between the user and the content he wants to see (interstitial ads), exploit user errors, set bad defaults, etc. However, it gave me some food for thought about our projects.

Now, you can truthfully say of all interfaces that, on some level, we use them to manipulate users, restricting their available courses of action and even pushing them in certain directions. It is also true that, as educators, our goals are not always the same as the user's; the pedagogical goals sometimes mean that we have to enforce a pattern of behavior that may not be the one the user has chosen, so we find ourselves having to compromise between pedagogy and usability. For example, in Business School case studies, we had a conversation about whether we should hide or disable menu items in order to prevent users from skipping ahead in the narrative structure. (We didn't, in the end, but it was almost decided the other way, and they may yet ask us for this, depending on how it is used in the classroom.)

So the challenge for us is to design interfaces that set up this manipulation as an instructive relationship, not an adversarial one. While advertisers want to annoy users as little as possible but still force them to view the content, we want to force students to learn something (usually a specific something), without making it too obvious that we're pushing them in a certain direction, or setting them up for an "aha" moment. One of the precepts of Evil UI Design is forcing the users to do work (e.g. having to click through five screens of ads in order to get your free download), but we also want to make our users work, because we want them to learn something. One other way of thinking about this is what I wrote in my notebook at the talk: "There's a thin line between scaffolding and walls."

This is in no way any sort of criticism; actually, I think that we usually do a really good job of providing guidance without being too limiting. But it was interesting for me to think about, since I don't usually worry about the design issues behind a project.