Day 15: Crime and Punishment

In today's post I'm going to try to convince you to think of the interfaces you make in terms of punishment, in order to find the path of least punishment.

Here's a perspective for you to consider: when someone uses your system, they are doing you a favour. Don't try to yes-but-what-if your way out of this; I'm not asserting that it is the case. I am saying that is how you should consider it to be. Assume that the user, given the option, will pick an alternative system. Design the interface from the point of view that it is the very fact people use the system that is the currency that measures its success. If people don't like using it, if you make it hard to do, they simply will stop doing so.

This is an important perspective if you are a business, because your system needs to get the user from state 1, wherein they have their money, to state 2, wherein you have their money. If you make that difficult to do, then they won't do it. You are not doing them a favour; don't treat them like you are.


Punishment probably makes you think of unwanted tasks doled out to people for correction or restitution of some misdemeanour or other. This is a bit of a goal-oriented definition, because it implies a perpetrator in the first place; i.e. it expects that some misdeed has been undertaken for which recompense needs to be made.

People are, of course, falsely accused and given punitive action nevertheless. The focal point of the above definition is that of an unwanted task; some chore that must be gone through, which one is inconvenienced, perhaps embarrassed or humiliated, to do. The concept is one of a strong antipathy or disinclination to do the thing; hence it is considered punitive to require that the person do it.

Crime and Punishment

When you design an interaction between a human and a computer you are establishing a sequence of events that will allow the user to eventually find themselves in a situation whereby the thing they set out to do has been done. Within this highly abstracted scenario there are three players:

  • You (the entity with which the task is being performed)
  • The user (the entity trying to perform the task)
  • The task (the sequence of events by which the thing moves from not-done to done)

This set of three players has implied with it several types of tasks:

  • Expected but trivial; these things do not inconvenience
  • Expected but undesirable; the user has prepared for this
  • Unexpected but trivial; these things are minor inconveniences
  • Unexpected and undesirable; necessary evils
  • Unexpected and undesirable and avoidable; punishment

When you design an interface and you've added something to that interface, seriously consider whether that thing can be considered punishing the user for something they didn't do wrong.

Especially consider whethere it is punishment for something out of their control. In many cases it is necessary to inform the user that there was a problem; this may seem like punishment, because it is quite undesirable to have to go through all that again.

Well, it is. Reduce the impact of problems by not discarding all the information the user has entered. If the problem is on your side, don't force the user to pick up the pieces, because they won't. If the problem is on their side, only require the re-entry of that information - not the entire thing.

And if there isn't a problem, why are you making one?


Amazon punished me recently. They have this 1-Click registered-trademark button that allows you to find something you want and have it on its way to you just by pressing a button. That's a great feature - they are absolutely doing me a favour by having it. And they do me a second favour by letting me amend the order for up to 30 minutes after it's created.

Then they punish me for wanting to do that.

If you try to change the delivery address of such an order you are required to "confirm" your payment details. Why? They told me (on Twitter) that it was a security precaution to prevent others from accessing my personal information.

What utter, rotten bullshit. This is rubbish design, pure and simple. If I didn't change my delivery address, I would not have to confirm anything! This is unexpected, undesirable, and completely avoidable. It is punishment for wanting to have it delivered somewhere else. That is not a punishable offence.


I get very upset sometimes. SimplyBe are absolutely not the sort of company that want me to give them any money. Every single step in between me selecting a product and me paying for the product was a pain in the arse.

Here are the necessary evils of buying something online:

  • Entering your payment details
  • Telling them where to send the product

That is it. Everything else beyond that is you not doing me a favour. Sometimes we accept certain things, like do you want to sign up for the newsletter? (No.) But there are really only two things a place needs to know about you in order to get your money from your pocket and into theirs. If they punish you for trying to do that, go somewhere else.

For the curious, my tirade can also be seen on Twitter, written live as I came across the problems with the checkout. Finding it is left as an exercise to the reader. Every single tweet in that set is about something I consider a punishment, and I consider myself as having been punished for wanting to give them money.

Metro 2033

I first started thinking about interfaces in terms of punishment while playing this game, Metro 2033, of which many readers may have heard. It was touted as one of the best games of whatever year I missed it in when it first came out. It's set in the subway of Moscow - the Metro - where humanity has retreated from whatever disaster has yet to be revealed.

The game goes, by stages, from stealth to survival to legging it to brawling to just wandering around in a township buying stuff. And it punishes you.

Progress in the game is saved by a checkpoint mechanic, although it doesn't tell you where the checkpoints are. All you know is that, if you die, you're going to be set back some arbitrary distance; although once you've failed once, you know where you're going to go back to.

The game is therefore, at the abstract level, a series of challenges that must be overcome in order to progress; failure in a particular challenge sets you back to, at best, the start of that challenge or, at worst, the start of the level. You don't know where until you fail a challenge, but when you've failed a challenge you have some idea of the new worst-case scenario.

The problem is that some challenges are more, well, challenging than others, but failing them causes you to have to repeat the less obnoxious ones in order to retry the difficult one. In a save-when-you-want game you would simply save before you reached the difficult challenge, in order to avoid repeating the easy ones more than once.

This reduces the easy challenges to chores, trivial tasks that you gradually become adept at and simply have to slog through to try the part you keep failing at, until eventually you find the secret to the difficult part. This quickly stops being entertaining.

Games should not be chores. Chores are punishment.

Incidentally, the game (so it calls itself) has another punishment mechanism: traps. Consider the welcome form of punishment, whereby you are set back for failing a challenge - this is the expected function of a game, since a game is supposed to be entertaining by presenting a challenge, and a challenge you can't fail is not a challenge at all. The trap I'm talking about is not a trap for the character in the game, but a trap for the player. In the game, traps are visible and have a disarming mechanism; but traps for the player are unexpected, random events. Unexpected, undesirable, but avoidable by the designer.

Twice, so far, the game has required me to be discreet, quiet, stealthy - this means light off - and then punished me by leaving traps in the dark. Things I cannot have avoided by using skill - points in the game where the only two approaches to the challenge would have caused me to fail. Damned if you do, and damned if you don't. The only way to beat the challenge is to have failed it at that point once already. How do I know there won't be another trap ahead? This challenge has become a chore.


Maintain flow. Most of the things I've listed as examples of punishment are flow-breaking. Most of the time, the user doesn't want to have to know how to perform the task; they need to be prompted to enter information, and as little information as possible. Every step along the way is a step further away from them achieving their goal, and the value of your system is entirely measured in how many people use it to achieve their goals.

Common punishments include:

  • Forcing the user to manually type information they use a computer to automate in the first place (autofill forms, or refusing to let me paste my generated passwords into the confirmation box).
  • Repetition of trivial tasks that shouldn't have to be done at all.
  • Requirement of information you don't strictly need.
  • Considering valid data to be invalid because your validation is broken (or vice versa).
  • Similarly, rejecting sensible input because you're scared of it (like most of my randomly-generated passwords).
  • Pretending to let you do something, and then moving the goalposts and not actually doing it.
  • Not providing sufficient information to help the user rectify the problem.
  • Fragmenting input forms across multiple pages.
  • Cramming a single page with too much input.
  • Discarding information because your fragile system shat itself.
  • Choosing difficult fonts and colours to read.
  • Making the user hunt for the next thing they have to do.
  • Related, leaving the user at the end of a process with no confirmation or failure message, so they don't know that they're done, or feeling that they have to do it all again.

I'm sure if I use the internet for another day I'll be able to double this list but you get the idea. For every action the user has to take, is it something they've prepared for, and do they actually have to do it?

1 [sic]