Blaming the user

In the early days of tech, the acronym of choice was, “Read the friggin manual.” If an engineer uttered RTFM in your direction, it meant that whatever happened was your fault. Tech is a powerful tool, and if you want to use it, do the work.

Over time, as user interface became user experience, and as organizations sought to serve ever larger audiences, UX designers began to take responsibility for how people would engage with their websites and software.

For a while, if the software didn’t work for the intended user, that was the software’s fault. “We’ll make a better interface” is a much better motto because it puts the responsibility where it belongs.

But the overhang was still there. In many companies, “user error” was a problem for the user to fix. Organizations were pitching convenience and simplicity, but the moment the user made an error, the messages were curt, the wait on hold was long due to unusually heavy call volume, and if it didn’t work for you, well, we’ve got enough users, it’s cheaper for you to go somewhere else.

As my colleague Mark Hurst points out, this contempt for the clueless user has been multiplied dramatically by the stock market. Now, many large companies have decided to use UX against their users, all of their users, by turning our experience with their websites and networks into one that serves their needs, not ours. It feels more convenient in the short run, perhaps even fun, but it’s designed to create lock-in, a permanent network effect and, as soon as practicable, a persistent source of cash flow.

In the latest crop of apps, the heavy-handed push toward compliance is truly obvious, from the very first interaction. And in the ones that are already dominant, the veneer of customer focus is fading fast.

If you’re not paying, you’re the product, not the customer. And sometimes, even if you are paying, the long-term impact of your quest for convenience might not be what you were hoping for.

The long-term consequences of our network choices are long indeed.