Critique of User Interface Illusions

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 15, 2013

Critique of User Interface Illusions

Alexis Madrigal spent some time with Facebook’s UX designers and content strategists and wrote a profile and a critique of what he takes to be the company’s design philosophy. There’s a lot to like about this essay in terms of its focus and the questions it raises, but one flaw is that most of the principles he gleans from the UX designers are in fact broadly accepted and practiced across the industry.

It’s hard to know if Madrigal really believes that they are unique to Facebook, or if this impression is an artifact of the journalistic tendency to avoid talking about ideas in the abstract, and presenting them as quotes from interviews with particular people instead. Maybe this is more reader-friendly (for some definition of “reader”), but it has the side effect of downplaying the broader significance of those ideas. So the flaw is that the essay could have been a book, or at least four or fives times longer, and is more broadly applicable than only in debates about Facebook.

His main topic is the vanishing act—when UX designers design something, the goal is to make the tool disappear from view, so that the user experiences it as natural and intuitive, transparently augmenting the user’s capabilities so that they may focus on achieving their goal rather than operating the tool. As much as possible, software should be frictionless and easy to use rather than antagonizing the user by demanding that she learn and master its arcane logic.

An Amazon television commercial says, “We’re the re-inventors of normal. We dream of making things that change your life, then disappear into your everyday.” What better way of disappearing that not existing? Partly as a reaction to the recent proliferation of inappropriately Twitter-ready devices like car dashboards and refrigerators, the prominent design agency Cooper published their No UI manifesto, a restatement of the ideas of Donald Norman, the godfather of user-centered design. In an article published in 1990, Norman said:

The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job.

In his 1998 book The Invisible Computer, Norman claims that “Tools should be noticed only when they break,” an idea that reappears in Madrigal’s article, in a conversation with Facebook content strategist Alicia Dougherty-Wold:

[Dougherty-Wold:] “When you call your mom on the phone, are you thinking, ‘I am talking on a device’?”

“That’s an interesting question,” I said. “I would say yes. But I can understand why people say no.”

“I would say, I’m talking to my mom. The only time I would say I’m talking to a device is when my cell carrier drops.”

The tendency to privilege the disappearance of the device can be traced back to Heidegger’s well-known opposition between the two modes of phenomenological encounter with technologies. Presence-at-hand is an experience of looking directly at a tool, examining it in a detached, theoretical way as an object of inquiry. We have this kind of experience when a tool malfunctions and we look at it wondering what’s wrong with it. Opposed to it is readiness-at-hand, which refers to the experience of being absorbed directly in the activity with the tool. Heidegger’s example is the hammer: when it is ready-at-hand, we are simply pounding the nails, engaged in the project of whatever we are building without focusing on the tool.

For Heidegger, it is not simply nicer and more convenient to use a hammer in this transparent way. Our immersion in our projects that is enabled by readiness-at-hand is one way we can experience being-in-the-world, the authentic mode of existence that’s distinctive of humans. He says:

The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific ‘manipulability’ of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call ‘readiness-to-hand’… The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically.

The UX design ideal that designed objects should be withdrawn, and design should be invisible to the audience and only appear when it fails means that software interface design largely escapes a Bourdieusian critique that can be made against other kinds of visual design that succeed or fail on their ability to transmit the requisite forms of cultural capital demanded by advertising and marketing clients. Here the point is obvious: to draw attention to the design, to stand out from the crowd by expressing unique brand traits, to associate the client with a style, a particular meaning and a set of values, and so on.

The dominant strain of user-centered design often ignore these goals, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by designers in other traditions who often complain about the subordination of aesthetics that is implied by the disappearance of the designed object.

Madrigal interviews Dylan Fareed, a designer and founder of the online art magazine Artlog, who says, “You don’t improve the experience of nailing things by pretending the hammer doesn’t exist.” And in A taste for practices: Unrepressing style in design thinking, Cameron Tonkinwise argues that the role of aesthetic judgment has been repressed in the genre of management literature known as design thinking. Although not quite the same as user-centered design, the insight seems to hold here as well.

But the best example of how UX design discourse subordinates aesthetic concerns may be found in precisely the ways that it tries to account for them. A topic that returns with some regularity is the idea that we should be going beyond mere usability, and designing for user delight, engagement, pleasure and surprise, which means playful, cute, humorous and beautiful interfaces. It should not surprise us to discover that these ideas are often implemented in error conditions, like 404 pages and input validation error messages. One oft-used example is the Mac OS login dialog, which shakes back and forth quickly when you enter an incorrect password, as if the dialog is shaking its head to say, “No.”

In the prologue to his 2005 book Emotional Design, Don Norman himself explains that the impetus for writing it was a criticism he heard from designers: “If we were to follow Norman’s prescription, our designs would all be usable, but they would also be ugly.” He makes up for this shortcoming by drawing on the concept of affect, reducing art to beauty and beauty to pleasure so that he can remain within the paradigm of cognitive psychology. More importantly, the interface can continue to be evaluated empirically, in terms of its impact on the user, who now takes center stage over and above the designed object that would normally evaluated in terms of its qualities.

One way that designers cause the object itself to withdraw is by exploiting pre-attentive properties of the human vision system, i.e., visual perception tasks that can be performed in under 250 ms. For example, given an image containing many small blue circles and a single red circle, we are able to instantly and effortlessly detect which one is red.

There are a number of properties of objects which are processed preattentively, and designers often use the property of color on form submission buttons and call-to-action buttons to draw the user’s attention without seeming to draw the user’s attention. When my attention is captured preattentively, I don’t experience it as an intrusion from outside, of something getting in my face and dragging my attention away from whatever else I was looking at. My eye is drawn in before I am consciously aware, so in my naive subjective experience, I experience myself as wanting to look at it. That is to say, preattentive processing captures and directs my desire as well as my attention.

A “fact” processed preattentively manifests as an objective truth that we can observe and verify for ourselves, seeming to preserve our autonomy to make our own decisions. In contrast, a verbal statement like “This circle stands out from all the other circles” is a claim, an argument, a belief, another’s attempt to persuade me, and so opens up the possibility of doubting it. We know that others can wield power over us and compromise our autonomy when we rely on second-hand information, so we learn to be skeptical, even cynical. What if we’re being duped? The only way to know for sure is to see it for ourselves.

In Freud as Philosopher, Richard Boothby draws on phenomenology and Gestalt psychology to rehabilitate Freud’s much maligned theory of the unconscious through the notion of what he calls the dispositional field. In the visual field, an object can only be held in consciousness by ignoring the background against which it appears. The figure depends on the repression of the ground, and everything that is posited, held as true, depends on what is disposited, or denied. Boothby illustrates this principle via Monet’s Haystacks. Monet painted twenty-five similar versions of the same haystacks in a field, differing only by varying weather and light conditions. His purpose was to render visible what he called the enveloppe, variations in light and atmosphere that mediate our perception of the object, without which the object could not be seen at all, and yet are themselves invisible.

All of this is to say that Madrigal is right to call attention to Facebook’s attempts at self-effacement, asking if by putting the user first, the service conceals its own ideological presuppositions. But exactly how we critique Facebook’s ideology matters. Madrigal wonders:

what responsibility do the system makers have in helping us think about the system? Can we wave away the structure of our tools so easily? And are we comfortable with doing so around the highway system or the way food is produced in this country or gun ownership?

Here the focus is on the user interface illusion and how it conceals the truth of how the system functions, and in other parts of the essay, he quotes others with similar concerns. One is concerned with Facebook’s alleged dishonesty; another wants Facebook to be more open about what happens “under the surface.”

The problem with this analysis is that it tends to devolve into the classic and ineffectual “Wake up, sheeple!” style of critique that seeks to expose the repressed truth. For Facebook, this truth would be something like: when we use Facebook, we believe we’re freely connecting with other people in a transparent, unmediated way, but this is an illusion. In reality, Facebook is a profit-driven company that tightly manages what goes on to maximize advertising revenue. We think we can do and say what we want, but certain choices are foreclosed.

Although this is undoubtedly true, why does anyone today continue to think that waking the sheeple out of their false consciousness would be an effective form of activism? To Madrigal’s list of mediating technological infrastructures encompassing social media, transportation and food production, we might also add our energy system which brings the prospect of ecological catastrophe in the form of climate change.

The wake-up-sheeple procedure is a now favorite tactic of right-wing Glenn Beck who maintain that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by communists and environmental extremists, and conspiracy theorists who claim that the Sandy Hook shooting and Boston Marathon bombing were false flag operations staged by the government as an excuse to impose martial law. These examples, while extreme, point to a general tendency in today’s political discourse: skepticism and cynicism towards all truth, an a priori assumption that every claim is nothing more than a mask for power. We are all Nietzscheans now.

There’s huge demand for journalistic exposés: eleven myths about X, the truth behind Y, what your doctor isn’t telling you about Z, investigating the coverups and unmasking the lies. But for all this truth-telling, the facts have never been less meaningful. When Al Gore tries to tell the inconvenient truth about climate change—truth we are allegedly not ready to hear—his opponents instantly announce an inconvenient truth of their own, that climate change is a hoax. The same investigative strategy of debunking George W. Bush’s military credentials is used to debunk the investigation itself. And so it is with the birther movement, the idea that childhood immunizations cause autism, the entire organic food movement that is premised on distrust of what regulatory agencies are telling us about pesticide safety, etc., etc.

Against this background of paranoia, Žižek is justified in claiming “If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions which regulate it, you lose reality itself.” The lesson here is definitely not that we should simply drop the whole project of telling the truth and taking a critical attitude towards lies, myths and misunderstandings. The lesson is that what is missing is not objective facts, but the very conditions that would make us accept them as true. These conditions are themselves not objective—to some extent, they are arbitrary beliefs.

Among a certain segment of the population that is decreasing in relevance, telling the truth still works. But why does it work? (In proper Lacanian terms, what stops the slippage of the signified under the signifier, stabilizing meaning and the symbolic order?) Because at a certain point, we stop demanding evidence and simply accept a proposition as true. We take it on faith that a person making a claim is speaking in good faith, that they are accurately representing their sources, that they aren’t concealing a hidden agenda, and that we have enough information to form a judgment. This is not the case for the radical skeptics that dominate popular culture today, who are caught in an infinite regress of debunking the debunkers.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with debunking—it can be necessary and important step towards a better, clearer understanding—but it only works inside of a relatively small community. Madrigal wonders if system makers have a responsibility to help users think about the system instead of making it transparent to them. The problem is that most people don’t know how to evaluate this transparency, and don’t trust, or have been taught not to trust anyone who claims to do so on their behalf.

He also seems to believe that it is generally helpful to be skeptical of intermediaries like Facebook who act on our behalf. I want to argue against this commonsense wisdom—a general policy of trusting intermediaries is a stronger, and might be a more critical standpoint than skepticism. Madrigal even points to why this might be so:

People get so used to Facebook disappearing that when the company or the technology inevitable rears its head, they are appalled to find that they’ve been communicating on a tightly managed, for-profit system all along. Which is why, oddly, it might help Facebook to design in more signs of mediation, a little more chrome, a little less perfection.

Like all great scams, ideology relies on the mark feeling like they know the game, that they’ve got an edge. We’re not dupes, not like all the other sheep. Facebook introduces signs of profit-making to give us a sense of having figured out their game, not so that we can be critical of it, although we may also do that to some extent, but more to reassure us that we’re clever enough to have figured out the game. We might believe that we are successfully managing our individual usage of social media and this can be completely valid. But it blinds us to the fact that it doesn’t matter too much, and Facebook is acting on social life on a much broader level where we are powerless. Having the technical option to delete your account and manage your privacy preferences means very little if not using those tools is a condition of getting a job, an apartment or car insurance.

It’s possible that naivety is the stronger position here. Trusting Facebook, or at least feigning to trust might be a more critical stance. Monet did not reveal the enveloppe of light and air that distorts our perception by exposing the illusion as a fraud and trying to paint the true picture. It was by repeating the distorted picture over and over again. By painting the image of the haystacks “too literally,” reproducing the scene faithfully in different light conditions, we begin to see the operation of the distortion on our perception more clearly than simply denouncing it and trying to directly represent the truth.

A similar approach might be used to show the mediating effects of Facebook. Perhaps Heidegger was right to say paradoxically that something is unveiled in the withdrawal of medium.