Although redesigns and feature tweaks are predictably unpopular (and early outrage usually fades), motives seem to matter. Indeed, their importance may bode ill for Facebook’s latest iteration of Instagram, which replaced the “Compose” button with its TikTok competitor, “Reels,” and the “Activity” button with its e-commerce venture, “Shop.”
Much like the supermarkets that re-order shelves to disrupt our well-worn routines, by monkeying with the position of Instagram’s most popular buttons, Facebook is abusing years of muscle memory to wrong-finger a billion users into clicking more lucrative features. The reaction to these self-serving changes was swift and harsh:
The look, layout and actions of app interactions are examples of what designers call the User Interface (U.I.), which is one element of the broader User Experience (U.X.). So central is U.I. to the success of modern products and services, the field has spawned a library of books and articles, as well as a burgeoning academic specialty.
However, as customers become increasingly sophisticated, demanding and vocal, the designs that succeed in the future are likely to be those that reimagine U.I. as User Indulgence.
The power of user indulgence lies in its recognition of our whims, weaknesses and inherent contradictions. Indulgent design allows products and services to dovetail with life as it is actually lived which, in turn, enables brands to form genuine and lasting customer connections.
Consider the snooze button.
People have long debated whether alarm clocks have a standard duration of snooze and, if so, why it seems to be nine minutes. But the button itself, popularized in the 1950s, is more intriguing for what it represents. Even the cheapest alarms deliver an accuracy that horology’s pioneers could never have envisioned, yet all of them feature a button that should be labeled: “Thanks for waking me to the nanosecond I requested … but now I want to doze.” And this feature is seldom shy. Compare the size, color and position of the iPhone’s snooze button with the button that stops the alarm:
The snooze button is a perfect illustration of user indulgence, where sophisticated functionality is modified — or entirely contradicted — to accommodate human frailty and whim.
Indulgence is everywhere.
Steam irons, water heaters, electric blankets and Christmas lights incorporate “auto switch-off” timers to indulge our absentmindedness and reduce the risk of fire. Kettles have “keep warm” functions to save us from endlessly re-boiling the same water. Certain fountain pen cartridges have an ink reservoir that when smartly flicked discharges enough ammunition for a few more pages. And some pain-relief systems incorporate a “bolus” button to override the regulated flow of drugs when patients need, say, a hit of morphine.
Most toasters have eject buttons that countermand their timers; Heston Blumenthal’s toasters offer indulgent “Quick Look” buttons to inspect your toast, and “A Bit More” buttons to brown your bread a smidge longer. Similarly the Whirlpool GMC275 microwave has buttons to “cook a bit more” and “add a minute.”
Google’s “Did you mean?” spell-check reflects an indulgence of hunt-and-peck typing as well as thick-thumbed spelling. And music streaming services such as iTunes and Spotify deliberately de-randomize their shuffle algorithms because the patterns that form in truly random selections don’t feel random to the listener.
Because indulgence speaks to profoundly human instincts, its absence can feel unjust. This feeling of perceived injustice explains why many otherwise obdurate systems (credit card companies, website domain renewals, patent applications) build in “grace periods,” and why boxing, since 1743, has given floored pugilists a “count” to recover on the canvas. Similarly, computer games feature “respawn protection,” allowing freshly-reanimated players to get their bearings before once again being slain.
Of course, indulgence also enables authorities to elide questions concerning the accuracy and calibration of their measurements. In other words, pragmatism — rather than goodwill — may guide the marginally flexible enforcement of parking meters, breathalyzers, speed cameras and other punitive equipment.
In some cases user indulgence is driven by the threat of harm. The “baker’s dozen” (13 instead of 12) supposedly derives not from generosity but from the severe punishment meted out for “short selling.” Similarly, some British pint glasses are deliberately oversized to allow for a frothy “head” atop the full legal measure. Despite the ban on smoking on all commercial flights, even the latest planes are required to have bathroom ashtrays so miscreants can safely stub out their cigarettes when the smoke alarms sound. And many of the fences erected around construction sites, to keep the public out and the debris in, incorporate viewing holes to indulge our insatiable curiosity. (The best have holes at lower heights for kids.)
In certain situations user indulgence is precisely that — most brazenly the hierarchy of “comps” (free drinks, room upgrades, cash back, private jets) dealt out by casinos to pacify regulars and reel in high-rollers. Over recent decades the hospitality industry has become increasingly fixated on “wow moments” — unexpected indulgences that provoke surprise, delight and social-media love. Back in the day it was chocolates on the pillow, towel-folded swans, late check-outs and hand-written notes of welcome; nowadays it is bespoke amenity kits, initial-embroidered pillowcases and personalized extras inspired by online research of customer peccadillos.
Splendidly, this school clock in north London manages to be indulgent, educational, encouraging and stern:
The power of indulgence is usefully illustrated by its opposite: antagonism.
Certain market sectors seem to thrive on antagonism. Airlines, utility companies, gyms, banks and insurers, for example, deploy a bewildering arsenal of contractual trip-wires and price obfuscations — exclusions, penalties, premiums, overages, add-ons, deductibles, co-pays, minimums, endorsements, time limitations, blackout periods, booking fees, cancellation fees, installment charges, offers available only to new customers, offers available only to members, offers that auto-renew at a higher rate — that are designed to frustrate, fatigue and ultimately fleece the consumer.
Even offers that seem indulgent can be stealthily hostile. For instance, supermarket multi-buys — “three for two,” “buy one get one free,” “buy one, get one half-price” — not only confuse customers and encourage excess consumption, obesity and waste, they also penalize the poor, the elderly, the single and those who rely on public transport to schlep home their shopping.
It’s hard not to see such antagonisms as cynically calculated when even the most intricate systems can be simplified when the will exists. The world of investing — so long portrayed as complex and specialist — has recently been upended by fintech apps such as Webull and Robinhood that streamline and gamify trading, some would say to a fault. As Christine Ji noted:
Every so often brands seek to defy the antagonisms of their sector by appealing to the indulgent concept of “humanity.” JetBlue launched with a mission to “bring humanity back to air travel”; Liberty Mutual Insurance ran a “Humans” campaign (complete with the Human League hit “Human”) to promote “our empathy toward policyholders in times when they need us”; and TD Bank sells itself as “unexpectedly human” — as if the very idea of humanity in banking was novel:
The fact that airlines, insurers, banks and others find it not just valuable but differentiating to promote their basic humanity illustrates the power of indulgence in antagonistic sectors.
Many moments of user indulgence derive from the identification and resolution of friction — allowing air passengers with children to board first, say, or including a pre-stamped envelope with a bill. Indeed successful startups are often premised on eliminating friction, especially when that friction has long been suffered as the cost of doing business.
Setting aside the issue of price, ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft instantly eliminated at least eight points of friction which, for generations, had been considered an inevitable part of taxi-hailing:
While these frictional moments have always been irksome, they did not feel especially onerous because (absent a car service or chauffeur) there was simply no alternative. Only once Uber et al. had smoothed away the friction did the taxi-hailing experience seem archaic and antagonistic — which is why many licensed taxi drivers have been forced to join Uber-esque platforms such as Waave, Curb, Arro and Free Now.
Admittedly, user indulgence is simpler in the luxury, local and bespoke sectors, where there is money, time and manpower to spare. But even mass-appeal brands can incorporate the principles of indulgence into their designs. More often than not this involves abandoning brand ego, and thinking like the user — which is evidently easier said than done.