Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

A UI Bill of Rights

Published: 16 May 2014

In an earlier post, I described a set of real world experiences as user interface studies, being interactions with organizations. Although in every case there were web pages involved, the point is supposed to be about the larger interaction.

In particular, when we interact with an organization to do something, the interaction process matters. Organizations are designed. Work is designed, whether creative or mundane. The interaction process is too. Since I am in the middle of designing and thinking about UI architecture for my own project, I thought about what was missing in my daily interactions, and why they upset me so.

Here are some tentative ideas for what I would like to call a Bill of Rights for a user. I intend to use this in my own web startup as a matter of goodwill with my user community. I wish others would make a similar set of promises.

Your Basic Rights

  • You deserve to know what the process is that you are investing in: how long it will take and what it will cost.
  • You deserve to know exactly how far the trace of your interactions will go.
  • You deserve to meaningfully influence change in the interaction process.

These basic rights apply to everything: what I expect in dealings with government services and from commercial entities. They should affect the entire fabric of transactions and in particular those we have the tools to engineer well, like web services. These are beyond the usually expressed goals of efficiency, clarity and delight.

About these three...

What Am I Doing?

We need to understand the contract via the UI.

When I start an interaction, I have a task in mind. I've already done a rough calculation about the value of the outcome and the cost of achieving that outcome. I assume a sort of contract with the other party: I'll do this and you will arrange for me to benefit as I expect. Yet few interfaces acknowledge this contract.

The Verizon example is an easy one where an expected simple purchase consumed hours and ambiguities still remain. But I mean something more general. When I set up a channel on iTunes radio, as a paid service, just what is the deal? Am I agreeing to be marketed certain songs that are inserted into the stream? Who am I rewarding? Am I contributing to the sort of change I believe is good? How could I possibly know; the interaction process is opaque even through it is painless and brief.

Suppose I choose to watch a movie in a theater. Some of the deal is obvious: ads, germs and snack extortion. But much of it is occluded. I would like to know what I am doing when I do it. iPad apps with in-app purchase surprises after you've invested some part of yourself are another example.

I cannot trust even the simple action of typing a URL these days.

We need to know what we are doing before we engage, and if that adjusts along the way we need to know how.

What Are You Taking?

We need a metaUI to inform what the other party is doing.

If I apply for a visa, I am asked for information beyond what seems necessary. This is because the real deal is not that I get the stamp; it is that I am populating a dossier on me that multiple agencies want for different purposes.

If I buy pants from a store on-line, what else am I doing?

This issue is normally framed in terms of 'owning your data,' but I think the problem is in different directions. I own almost nothing. My so-called personal data was never mine, but something assigned that I carry. My medical history — the usual example of the most private information — isn't from me but given to me piecemeal from others in transactions. More, I am aware that even most of my private thoughts and reactions are programmed by interactions I have committed to.

Google is the big offender here. Say I reply to an email from a friend who unwisely uses Gmail. The immediate interface I see is one I have chosen, but the transaction I am committing to is beyond my vision. I would like to be told: 'gosh, you know hitting this send button incidentally delivers a message, but it primarily feeds a private database of unknown character.'

Transparency isn't necessary. I don't care if Google never wants to tell us who they sell to and how. But I do want my interface to be honest about what I lose when I interact.

How Do I Change This?

We need a UI to inform about and tailor UIs.

Confidence in the invisible hand of market forces is widespread. Often, the supposition is that if you don't like something, then vote with your dollar and take your business elsewhere. Sooner or later, competitive forces will make the offending agent wise up, so the story goes.

I do have a lot respect for market forces, and have devoted a significant portion of my creative life to understanding how to engineer them in the context of forming agile manufacturing enterprises. Those forces, when measured aptly, work extraordinarily well. But I have also come to appreciate that there are huge areas where they don't apply or work against us. This is old news of course, but because so much of the transaction fabric is now digital, and possibly consolidated, we may have new possibilities to effect change.

It won't happen with an email address for suggestions, no matter how enfranchised the consumer advocate on the other end is. Yes, we need that. And we likely could use more public shaming in the name of education.

But what I mean here is something more fundamental. The simplest example I know is the transaction process for getting a problematic visa. The country I beseech a visa from requires an appointment at their embassy for a stamp. I could travel, blowing two days to sit in front of a clerk or I could intermediate the interaction. (Futures gadfly Nick Negroponte is famous for his prediction that the internet will remove intermediaries, but I have experienced an opposite effect.)

I can hire a service to fill out the forms, manage the fee, go stand in line and express mail the passport back. In other words, I modified the interaction process, but that isn't quite what I have in mind; that government actually wants to discourage visiting and the difficult process is deliberate

A corollary: interaction processes should be frangible. I want to be able to easily walk away from something I started but which turned out to be different.

We need a recognition that all transactions are symmetric, that both parties need to have some mechanism for re-engineering the interaction. Because so many of these interactions are essential to a reasonable life, I believe we should claim this as a right.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014