The Dark Side of User Interface Design

Ariel Guersenzvaig | Rosa Llop

With the appearance of the first graphic interfaces, the notion of “interface” came to be associated with the idea of a “window”. All operating systems began to facilitate interaction through manipulable frames and, in no time at all, the metaphor of the interface as a “window to the world” was popularised. While the allegories of the desktop, folders and the recycle bin are still valid, the metaphors used for graphic interfaces are being brought into question. Nonetheless, we continue to define the interface as a transparent surface that facilitates contact with a system. By using a substantive to represent the interface (layer, window, surface…), we give the concept a neutrality it doesn’t deserve. We trust in it completely and believe that the information it provides is honest. This apparent neutrality leads us to feel we can act freely, that we are the masters of this communication. Interfaces, however, like any other design, are subject to a context and, therefore, respond to the aims of that context. And, for the time being, the methods for achieving these aims are neither regulated nor guaranteed. In this article, we’ll describe some of the practices that demonstrate how interfaces are not transparent and advocate the importance of changing this metaphor.

In 2015, a court ruling ordered the professional social network Linkedin to pay 13 million dollars to the state of California for tricking the users of their service through its registration interface. The aim of the scam was to gain access to users’ e-mail address books and obtain permission to send e-mails in their name. In order to highlight this scam, Google’s product manager Dan Schlosser published an article in Medium in which he outlines up to 16 different interfaces used by Linkedin to fraudulently appropriate address books. The strategies he describes range from using deliberately misleading messages, to dialogue boxes designed so that certain buttons stand out above others.

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