Control Issues

What does “user control” actually mean? This is my quest for a definition.

The Product Manager I work with on Content Services, Kevin Ghim, recently asked me to explore ways in which we could experiment on New Tab with “more user control in mind.” Kevin wasn’t asking me to design cool buttons or fancy interactions. He was asking me apply a broad idea to the overall experience.

Naturally, I couldn’t flesh out the finer details of a User Interface before understanding the larger story; and I couldn’t craft a credible story without a proper definition of the basic idea it was intended to support. And since no such common definition can be found (other than in the traditional sense of manipulable controls), I did what any reasonable designer with marketing experience would do. I made one up.

What sounded like a simple exercise has turned into a real mind-melter. This is the journey I took before arriving at my own conclusion.

1: Controls ≠ Control

We talk about control a great deal at Mozilla. In theory, any new feature or functionality we want to introduce on Firefox should allow for greater control, whether over the browser itself or the content within it. Sometimes this means more menus and buttons. Other times it means clearer choices over intended outcomes. It all depends on the task at hand, and a particular user in a particular scenario. But as a UX designer, I fully recognize that controls don’t necessarily add up to control. They are in fact, distinct things.

Broadly defined, “control” could be a synonym for “interaction.” This is to say that for as long as a user can manipulate (i.e. interact with) something, then they have control over it. While this may be technically true, taking this argument at face value fails to consider the larger experience. By this definition, a user would have “control” over how a service provider collects and shares their data with third-party advertisers by clicking an “I agree” button on the Terms of Agreement modal. Not only is this misleading, it completely devalues the role of a user while obscuring the role of the content or service provider.

Certainly, controls are integral to any successful experience. But it’s not enough that a user simply understands what each feature or interaction is supposed to do. Even the best designed, most well intentioned, and considerately placed controls will prove insufficient if they don’t allow for self determination. This is why I felt it necessary to go further, because I want the New Tab experience to anticipate a user’s wants – not to coerce them into supporting our own interests, or to choose a particular path on their behalf.

To explore the idea of control further, I had to look more critically at another idea…

2: Control is Contextual

Since control is meaningful only in context and in regards to a single individual, identifying a user’s wants or needs especially tricky.

For example, a new or novice user will often find a simple interface more approachable because they understand it more quickly. More specifically, they recognize their relationship to it. And a user who “gets it” will be more likely to use it. Their goals are more immediate and general. Likewise, limited interactions tend to help facilitate a basic sense of control over the experience by eliminating distractions.

At first, that is. Once the user wants to do more than the interface will allow, then simplicity and limitations soon become barriers. As to be expected, wherever there is a barrier, confidence diminishes, and, along with it, the user’s perceived level of personal control over their experience. Users who consistently want more control will leave, and those who feel overwhelmed by controls either quit outright, or move on to something “more intuitive.”

So, if user control is largely about supporting individual goals, then any interface or experience I create should anticipate the fact that different users will have different goals at different times. Finding the balance between control and ease-of-use can be an art in itself, requiring constant reevaluation.

While this may seem impossible at first, it helps me to consider another key point…

3: Control is Personal

Control may be relative, but it’s also very real in that it can be perceived and demonstrated in everyday life.

Users are people, not abstractions. While our roles as individual may be small on a cosmic scale, here on earth, at this very moment, we do understand and feel varying degrees of control in all aspects of our lives. Work, romance, friendships, and family are each stages where we exert real influence over the final production.

When it comes to relationships, in particular, many equate control with authority (the right to exert influence). While there will always be those who seek outright domination, folks mostly strive to maintain equanimity within their relationships by playing an active and substantive role in achieving a shared goal. As long as everyone is on the same page, so to speak, then there’s little need for one to dominate another. The same could be said about technology.

By default, a user may assume that technology – which is made by people, for people – is subservient to them. They are the ultimate authority figure. But after playing around with a few toggles and buttons, it becomes clear that any technology has its own prerogatives. A user can’t do any-or-everything they want, only certain things. Furthermore, human flaws in logic or production can render an otherwise powerful utility into something utterly useless; which, in turn, renders the operator impotent. In similar fashion, a user’s relationship to the technology depends largely on their ability to gain mastery over it. This is further exacerbated on the Web, where there are no physical machines to manipulate, and only pixels on a screen.

Accordingly, the best Web experiences respect the user’s authority, and allow them to define the value for themselves, as it applies to their individual circumstances (which may change over time.) Basically, the user should always feel that they have genuine control. It doesn’t get any more personal than that.

Beyond this, it’s crucial to remember that…

4: Control is Specific

Typically, something is personal because it’s specific. Like the ratty sweatshirt kept long after graduating college, or the picture taken while on an exotic journey. They are things we can touch and see that invoke a memory or represent a larger idea we deeply care about. Take away those connections, and those things become entirely ordinary.

People can think of Web products in the same way. It depends on how strong – and clear – the connections are between a product, a particular user, and the role it serves in their life.

As the designer for New Tab on Firefox, I try to connect those dots in a coherent, meaningful way. Giving a user total control over absolutely every feature and function would most likely confuse or frustrate them, not build confidence. Instead, I’d rather identify what they care about, personally, specifically, and design for that.

For instance, the majority of users fall into one of two camps: those who don’t mind advertising, and those who hate it. This involves very personal feelings about something very specific. Likewise, New Tab must allow users to exercise personal choice over these promotional experiences. Those whose aren’t bothered by ads should still have the ability to decide when or what kinds of ads they want to see so that they’re more relevant and timely. Those who want nothing to do with them should be allowed to opt out of any advertising altogether. These are simple things, but they would demonstrate true user control in action.

5: Conclusion

Having considered the ideas above for some time, I’ve finally come closer to understanding what user control really means – to me, at least. My definition is by no means perfect. If nothing else, the following is how I choose to approach this complex issue whenever designing for Content Services products on Firefox:

User Control is the measure by which an individual user may influence, direct, or master a digital interface, in a particular context, and in order to support a specific goal.


Now, I genuinely want to know what you, dear reader, think user control means. Regardless of your role, either as a contributor to the Mozilla Project, or as a regular user of Firefox, I invite you to share your comments below.

I’m just one guy with an opinion. Maybe together we can spark some much-needed debate within the Mozilla community.

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