Building better user-centered products: An interview with Ron Bronson

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Creating humane experiences is about more than just empathy, argues information architect and product design manager Ron Bronson.

10 min read

Photo of Ron Bronson from the UX Research Conference in Toronto

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A few years ago information architect and product design manager Ron Bronson sat at a train station in Chicago. He missed his train, and with a few hours to spare he watched people try to use a self-service ticket machine. Fascinated with how passengers from all walks of life — young and old — struggled to figure out what to do, he decided to give it a go himself just to see what they were experiencing.

“I didn’t think it could be that hard but the UI was a disaster,” Ron remembers. “It was miserable, it just didn’t work. Even if you were trying to use the kiosk’s voice-activated system, it was really difficult. I already had my ticket but what if I had been in a rush or had to run? I asked myself a few questions: Who designed this machine? Why did they think it was a good idea? Did they test it, and if so how? And why did nobody fix it?”

The incident led Ron to analyse other service design experiences, online and offline, examining specifically why they weren’t designed in a more humane way. He studied dark patterns (or anti-patterns) in user interfaces, which are flows purposefully designed to deceive a user into doing something they might not otherwise do.

Realising that it’s all connected and always comes back to preventing harm from the start, Ron then started looking into ways to reduce the hostility that’s frequently baked into the design of everyday experiences, and quantifying the cost of friction in design, which can often end up ruining the UX. He also began questioning how designers have abdicated their responsibility for destructive patterns across digital products, exploring ways to put integrity back into the design process.

The result is an evolving practice that Ron calls Consequence Design. He’s currently working on a book to bring together his research.

“Consequence Design is the mat in front of the door,” Ron explains. “When you look underneath, insects who weren’t visible scurry in all directions. All designed interactions have consequences, whether it's someone getting stuck buying a train ticket from a kiosk, or hidden menus inside of web applications. The consequences might be unintended but they cost time and money, and erode trust with our platforms. We need to uncover how a product can cause harm and fix it.”

Train ticket machine with confusing UX
Watching people try to navigate a train ticket machine like this one led Ron to think about other poor service design experiences.

Common friction in user experiences

Digital experiences are full of friction, which refers to anything that prevents users from accomplishing their goals or getting things done. Sometimes this friction is intentional, and sometimes it isn’t. For example, service design and user experience often fall short when interactions that were once human to human are delegated to digital systems, such as chatbots or self-driving cars. It introduces friction that didn't exist previously.

Ron points out that these days we’re so focused on the transactional relationship with our users, that all we care about is the customer journey — but only to onboard and convert them. We’re putting all our effort into getting someone into a funnel and persuading them to use a service. Sometimes people will want to leave but we make that process really hard and create an additional layer of emotional burden, even using design patterns that employ guilt friction as a user retention strategy.

“We don’t think about humane ways to let folks off board,” Ron sighs. “We guilt-trip people! I got a message from my barber saying, ‘I miss you’. I mean, I have great conversations with him but we’re not best friends. It’s not personal, we’re not breaking up. But that’s how we treat it. We need to respect our users at every stage of the process, not just at onboarding or when we’re trying to convince them to sign up, but also when they decide to leave.”

Another type of bad friction Ron mentions is coercive friction: interactions meant to coerce or induce users to make counterintuitive decisions. We assume that someone doesn’t really want to unsubscribe and so we create a modal that makes them answer 25 questions before they’re able to actually do it. Or we ask our users to read something once they’ve been in our app long enough, but we ask for money and extort them before we let them look at it.

Then there’s attention theft — benign interactions meant to siphon attention over small periods of time. Individually, they’re not that big a deal. You might receive a notification on your phone and that’s not too bad. But in an always-on world we are bombarded with notifications for everything, and if UI patterns force you to click every single item to disable them (like Instagram does), you might just give up because it’s simply too hard.

Problems also occur when designers copy a pattern or interaction that they found online. As a result, the same mistakes and bad information architectures are perpetuated all over the web. Also, what works for one project doesn’t necessarily work for another. Teams need to think about their particular use cases and tailor their products accordingly.

“I see this all the time,” Ron warns. “People look at what Silicon Valley companies do and treat it like the gold standard. They take everything someone else built and design their own version of it. Did you test with anybody? No, but Google did it and they have tons of user researchers, so it must work, right? But you need to think about if it actually works for your audience. Do the modals and calls-to-action make sense, or are you really just copying it all?”

Ron Bronson presenting at the Design & Content Conference
Ron Bronson presenting at the Design & Content Conference.

Why design ethics and empathy alone won’t solve the issues

On their own the problems we deal with on a daily basis can seem small, but Ron argues that spread over hundreds or thousands of experiences they compound, become bigger and can be very stressful and alienating. Ron therefore calls for designers to be more rigorous.

If a dentist accidentally hurts you, you’re covered by insurance. But you’re not covered against badly designed products and services. If a product team designs something that causes harm because they didn’t test it well enough, it might be time to improve our processes to prevent it from happening again.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Ron cautions. “There are a lot of small issues, and the crux of it is that they’re all micro-interactions that nobody owns, so they get short shrifted. Designers often say it’s not their fault and didn’t mean for something bad to happen but we can’t keep passing the buck. We need to stop making excuses. At what point do we become accountable? Unintentional design friction, patterns and mistakes are inevitable, but any poorly researched interaction can harm. It’s our responsibility as designers, with the help of researchers, to continue to interrogate our work to figure out what we screwed up, so that we can keep iterating on our designs.”

Ron finds that the lens from which designers operate can be very narrow. We tend to design for our own experiences rather than solving actual problems.

Many products are designed assuming good intent, but that’s a flaw in service design. Ron is skeptical that ethical design and empathy, which a lot of conversations in the industry evolve around, are enough to improve products and services.