Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

Web UX Design Is Broken

I recently discovered a website that brilliantly illustrates the state of user experience (UX) design on today’s web. Please take a moment to use it and see for yourself how fundamentally broken and intrusive web browsing has become on the majority of websites we interact with daily.

The Problem

You might need a moment to recover from that. A bombardment of overlays and pop-ups are currently screaming for our attention for purposes of marketing and legal requirements (GDPR). We have become overwhelmed with interruptions, whether cookie banners, newsletter subscription prompts, feedback requests, chatbot bubbles, dynamic ad blocks, or notification alerts. Web pages have become possessed, and we need a fucking exorcist to come to our collective aid. Now, that might come in the form of ad and pop-up blockers, which go a long way to remedy the UX horrorshow, but it’s a bit like locking your front door to prevent raving zombies from entering your home rather than living in a calm, frictionless, and uninterrupted environment by design. And that’s what we want—at least theoretically.

There is a certain degree of irony at play here. On the one hand, we have a million designed interruptions for whatever reason, and on the other, we are experiencing the rise and rise of UX and UI design. And sitting merrily beside those areas of expertise, we now have a wave of forked disciplines in the shape of UX researcher, UX writer, UX content strategist, and UX engineer. But we seemingly still can’t get it right. Maybe I’m overly sceptical, and this is just very early days in fixing how users will experience the web in future, but come on. UX currently encompasses roles that appear to apply considered design for users, rather than actually considering the user. Incidentally, I say this as someone that would now be considered a UX Engineer (unofficially).

Current and Future Solutions

For all the issues around the application of UX design, there are some positive signs. Companies large and small are taking design patterns and documentation more seriously than ever. You might be familiar with the term Design System. This system essentially unites teams to create digital products with a consistent user experience through a shared philosophy and design language. It outlines foundations, principles, breaks down modular user interface (UI) components, including use cases and code snippets, and it provides guidance on how to write and style content. It can be light-touch, or it can be extremely comprehensive. The scale of a Design System typically reflects the scale of an organisation.

Design Systems set a positive basis to work from, but they don’t solve many collective problems of how we generally experience the web (IndieWeb aside). Specifically:

  • How do we find a better cookie banner solution for all rather than single sites?
  • How can we convert subscribers without interrupting their journey?
  • How can we better handle advertisements?
  • How can we integrate chatbots less obtrusively?

I think some of these questions could be answered at browser level. For instance, how personalised, performance, and essential cookies are handled. I would love to see the removal of any in-page cookie UI element, regardless of how well designed it is. Browsers already detect cookies, so why not integrate an unobtrusive button group in the toolbar to accept and decline cookies? I know some browsers such as Safari and Brave block trackers from profiling you, but what we’re after here is the reduction of visual interruptions while respecting the legal requirement of user control. Here’s a visual concept:

Proposed browser UI to control cookies

Finding a single solution to reduce the noise of marketing interruptions is a lot more challenging. How newsletter pop-ups and ad banners appear is up to the website owner—not the user. It is, after all, their prerogative of how they wish to market their own or third party products. Yet, there again might be a solution at the browser level that could work. We know browsers can auto-detect whether there is an RSS feed, with some adding a subtle button in the address bar to allow reading in an alternative format. A similar discovery method could detect whether there is a newsletter pop-up script in the page source. Browsers could prevent the pop-up event from occurring and instead add a discreet button to the address bar to notify the user that a newsletter sign-up exists. The user could then press that to activate/toggle the pop-up and subscribe at will. Chatbot bubbles could also use this approach for better handling.

I know browsers like Safari already block pop-up windows by default, which is great, but these pesky newsletter overlays slip through the cracks. They do this for the simple reason they are not external windows—they are modals. A modal window creates a mode that disables the main window but keeps it visible, with the modal window as a child window in front of it. Don’t get me wrong, they are effective in terms of conversion, but I do not doubt that they pester users more than they convince them.

These browser solutions are interesting to me, but I am mindful of the potential friction. That is, how unintuitive some icons might be to some audiences. And how cluttered the toolbar might become if sprayed with buttons.

That brings us to advertisement blocks and banners. Designers can make ads appear more subtle and carefully consider the layout of web pages, but there’s a limit to that. Advertisers have expectations and are paying for visibility and the prospect of interrupting the user to persuade them to interact. These interruptions offer the least value to users, yet it’s hard to see them disappearing from the web any time soon. Ad blockers are probably the best solution we have available to us at the moment. But the onus is on the user to configure this themselves.

Maybe that’s as good as it will get for us, but I hope browsers will continue to incorporate features to better protect and respect how people want to use the web. Beyond that, I am hopeful that website creators will reduce the volume of marketing interruptions and persuasive technology and find more creative ways to promote commercial offerings humanely.

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