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10 min read

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

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

Photo of Ron Bronson from the UX Research Conference in Toronto

Photo from UXR Conference

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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