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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

User Control v.s. User Burden

User control has been one of the top 10 UX design principles and recognized by the whole industry. Jakob Nielsen’s third usability heuristic is also user control and freedom. A lot of companies have been trying to give users enough control when they are using their products; however, to my understanding, some of them may have given users too much control, which turn out to be an extra burden for the users.

What is user control? Jakob Nielsen stated his opinion about user control and freedom, which is:

“Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked ‘emergency exit’ to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.”

Photo by Bernard Hermant

For this aspect, I totally agree, and I think it should be a must obey principle. Whenever users have done something by mistake, the system should have an “emergency exit” for them to leave the unwanted state, go back to previous page, and/or they should be able to undo and/or redo.

For example, at Gmail, after sending out an email, the system allows user to click "Undo" at the bottom of the page within a few seconds of time, depending on their settings, before it disappears. This feature is quite useful, this ‘Undo Send’ feature allows people to cancel a sent mail if they have second thoughts immediately after sending, or figured out a mistake, or forgot to add an attachment, etc.

No matter we are editing a photo with photoshop, or typing texts with Microsoft word, or working on a video editing project, undo and redo have already been a standard must have features. In my memory, when I used to work with Alias studio tools, it even allowed me to go back to a certain point in my project history. Photoshop and some other tools also have this feature, and many users have found it to be very useful.

However, some people just understood user control and freedom from its wording, so they have expanded this principle to be giving users the control to do what they want or providing the option for users to customize based on their own unique needs. So, first, I think some designers have misunderstood user control with customization; second, which is the worst, that some designers think this is a must obey principle, and use it to decide their product design, which can be a big mistake.

I am not against customization or giving out some level of control and freedom to users, but I do think we need to be very careful about the level of control and freedom we want to give to the users. In my opinion, if we have given users the right amount of freedom, they will be happy; but if we give users total control, it will actually create a disaster, a nightmare, not just to the designers or product owners, but to the users.

I used to do a consultant project for a mobile reader for Nokia, the PM from Nokia had requested my team and myself to design the flow to allow users to customize many things, e.g. change the background texture, brightness and color, change the text color, font type and size; change the book shelf style, choose or upload their own avatar, encourage them to win badges, and so on and so forth. Which have made the app very complicated and have caused a lot of resources to design and develop those features.

Of course, Nokia was the number one mobile company in the world at that time. But throughout my research, I actually found there were a couple of mobile readers in the market at that time, produced by small companies, but have been very successful in the market. Their app looked simple or even ugly, they did not have fancy features, they did not provide any customization or so-called user control and freedom, but users love them. Why? Because the core value of mobile reading was the content, not the reader itself.

Nokia targeted at white-collar office workers in big cities, it partnered with Pearson publication company, provided English study, golf courses, business strategy books and so on to the users. However, the content provided by the two small companies seems quite low end, just some love romance novels, kung fu stories, and they mainly targeting at those factory workers. At the end, the mobile readers from those two small companies became the winners. Even the white-collar office workers prefer to use those two readers, instead of Nokia reader. When people are doing mobile reading at their fragmented time, like in the elevator, in the subway or bus, or before sleeping in the bed, they prefer some content that is more relaxing, instead of too serious.

So, my learning from that project experience is: 1. Knowing our core value, put all resources on this at the first priority; 2. Make the product smart, e.g. the app should be able to self-adjusting it’s brightness and contrast for the best reading experience for the users; 3. Some features maybe are good to have but not must to have. E.g. change the texture and color of the background and/or book shelf; 4. Some features maybe just unnecessary or even increased user burden. E.g. users were forced to choose an avatar at the beginning of registration for this reader app.

Another case was about vacuum cleaning robot. For example, Ecovac robot. For this vacuum robot, like many other vacuum robots in the market, the robot can automatically clean the floor and then return to the base to self-empty the robot dirt bin to the Clean Center. Users normally do not need to do anything once the schedule of cleaning has been set, they will only need to take out the dirt bag at the Clean Center every once a while when it is full.

However, this robot has a manual empty dirt bin feature, that user can turn off its auto empty function, and then click a button at the home screen, which will force the robot to empty its dirt bin to the clean center. Each time, when user clicked this button, no matter if user was intentionally or not, it will trigger the robot starting this process, a pop-up screen will show up, and there is no way to stop it, and no way to get out of it, all buttons on the screen are frozen, and this will last for one minute. There is also a combination of clicks on the actual robot physical button to activate this process, to make the robot emptying its dirt bin to the Clean Center.

First, this forced manual empty dirt bin feature is really unnecessary, and I do not think it is a user control, it is actually a user burden. Through my research, all the users did not understand what this feature is about, and why the manufacturer provided this feature. “The robot supposed to be automatically, and that is what we are buying it for, right?” If I quote from some users. Plus, with the one minute of waiting time, user could have easily taken a couple of seconds, to use their hand to open the robot dirt bin and empty it by themselves, why should they take so much trouble and effort to ask the robot to extract, especially the robot can do it automatically every time after a clean.

It is a user burden, not only created physical burden, that user will have to click the button for a forced empty dirt bin process or do a combination of clicks and hold the buttons for a few seconds on the robot to enable this process to happen. It is also a mental burden for the users to figure out what it is about, and to remember the combination of clicks.

Second, it actually against the original user control principle, that user should be able to cancel or get out of that state if anyone clicked that button by mistake, instead of been forced to wait on that pop-up screen for one minute long without being able to do anything.

So, to summarize, I think our understanding for user control and freedom should stick with the original definition, that we should allow users to undo, redo, or cancel a job if they did that by mistake or had a second thought. For the expanded concept of giving user more control and freedom, we should be very cautious. We should always keep in mind, what has the users hired us to do. If the users are hiring us to do the reading, then let us focus on reading first; if the users are hiring us to do automatically cleaning, then let us make the product as smartly as possible and as automatically as possible.

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