An image of a man and woman intricately entwined in technology cables from an array of devices, including computers, tablets, phones, kiosks, and automobiles.

Users are trapped by technology: a man and a woman intricately entwined in technology cables from an array of devices, including computers, tablets, phones, kiosks, and automobiles. It’s a creative take on the intricate web of technology that we attempt to navigate in our daily lives. Image produced by powered by AI of DALL-E 3.



April 3, 2024



BAD EXPERIENCES – User Control & Freedom Heuristic Ignored

POSITIVE EXAMPLES – User Control & Freedom Heuristic Upheld







Ten Usability Heuristics for making technology systems easy-to-use have endured the test of time. Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich published the set of the ten now famous UX “commandments” in 1990, three years before Don Norman coined the term “User Experience” or UX. These heuristics enable usability experts to review systems according to adherence to these well-established guidelines. These heuristics are intended to be technology-agnostic and can accommodate technological evolution over time.

Usability Heuristics

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation


One of these important heuristics which is very often overlooked is #3. User Control and Freedom. Who doesn’t like having control? One of the most useful examples of this is the UNDO function supported by most applications. But if designers choose to limit users’ freedom, users can still take control by abandoning purchases, navigating to competitors’ websites, shutting down their computers, and moving to alternate channels. If customers do not want to use their banking website, for example, they may instead use their bank’s phone app, call their bank on the phone, or visit a branch (if one exists).


Brands that take away users control risk wasting money, damaging brand image and extinguishing customer loyalty. Let’s first look at some examples of technologies that ignore this important guideline and then at some counter examples.



BAD EXPERIENCES – User Control & Freedom Heuristic Ignored


I kept seeing social media ads for a fashion brand. After sufficient prompting, my curiosity was peaked, so I clicked one of the ads and was directed to a website. The brief blink of fashion images was immediately covered-up by a registration window. This vendor was trying to exert control by forcing all visitors to register before allowing them to shop on this website. My brief curiosity was immediately replaced by resentment. In addition, I shared this experience with others, which is a common reaction that makes negative experiences spread and damage the brand image.


Another example of a User Control and Freedom heuristic violation is the enforcement of automatic updates of cloud-based applications. Whenever there is a forced update, my father — an 88-year-old engineer with a Ph.D. and the author of 6 books — has to call his grandchildren on speed-dial in order to have them talk him through how to use the new version of a familiar application. He cannot control when the applications are updated nor which updates to accept or reject. After system updates, this wise and independent adult is left helpless without continuous technical support.


On the other end of the age scale is my son — also an engineer and an avid reader – who regularly complains to me about the automatic updates to his favorite audio book platform. They often remove functionality, and change interface designs without warning. They give their loyal users absolutely no control over access to their own digital library. In the analog world, this would be equivalent to having someone renovate your home library without warning. Imagine you come home to find walls moved and repainted, new furniture added and old ones removed, your carefully organized books rearranged in alphabetical order, some your favorites removed, and some other books put behind lock and key. You would not appreciate this type of service from your home librarian, yet you have no choice in the digital realm?


Automatic updates may seem great for software development teams pushing to meet their agile release deadlines. And easy compared to hardware updates and old days when software updates were shipped on CD or worse. But these same updates are hard for customers. In fact, digital customer satisfaction is negatively affected by frequent updates.


Another example of violations of this important heuristic occurs at Operating System updates. Clearly, operating systems need updating to preserve security. System security needs to constantly evolve to keep up with bad actors creating ever-more sophisticated online attacks and privacy violations. So, I am not complaining about increasing security features in operating systems. I am talking about updates of Operating Systems that disable applications without warning.


For example, after I got my first iPhone, released in Canada in 2008, I immediately purchased a multi-language dictionary app for my new iPhone. It contained six languages and cost $60 CDN – a huge cost for an app. This dictionary app worked offline when roaming data was very expensive. I used this app frequently in my travels, accessing all six languages on the go. Unfortunately, after one round of iPhone iOS updates, my precious dictionary app was no longer operable on my iPhone. Apple expected app providers to rewrite their apps to the new OS requirements, but this app provider did not do it. I felt the loss of this app severely – as Google Translate was not available offline at this time. I left the non-functioning app on my phone as a sad memento.


Another example of this violation comes from an upgrade to Personal Video Recorders (PVR) – TiVo was an example of this technology which became popular in early 2000’s. One large Canadian media company issued a remote software update to the devices of hundreds of thousands of customers. This update resulted in the deletion all users’ personal recordings. The error was blamed on a software quality assurance error. But all these customers forever lost their libraries of personally curated recordings and were never compensated for their losses.


A related story on this topic of lack of user control occurred to me on a recent trip to Switzerland. During my previous visits, I bought transit tickets for SBBSchweizerische Bundesbahnen, Swiss Federal Railway – using different methods including ticket machines, ticket offices, and the SBB app. This app provides valuable travel information, trip planning, along with ticket purchases. The app’s “EasyRide” feature simplifies the ticketing process made daunting with the various geographic zones and different transit providers. Instead, using the app one needs to just turn ON EasyRide at the start of the trip and turn it OFF upon arrival. The system calculates the best value for the trip and sends the bill and charges for payment the next day. I had grown fond of the EasyRide function and used it frequently.


On my last trip, on my way to a friend’s house, I had to take a local bus together with my heavy luggage the distance of two bus stops. It was late evening. I found the bus-stop and pulled out my phone and the SBB app to initiate the EasyRide. It did not turn on as I expected. After several tries, I noticed a tiny “!” warning icon next to the EasyRide on-switch. “Add Payment Method,” it demanded when tapped. I didn’t understand this request, as I had previously bought my tickets through this app using Apple Pay. Now, for some unknown reason, I was unable to use the same method. Adding a Payment Method required many complex steps that I was not able to do while in transit.


My bus was arriving, and I could not activate the EasyRide! I panicked as seconds ticked. I debated if I should ride the bus without payment and risk the fine – 100 CHF, $114 USD, $153 CDN, – or stay behind in the cold until the next bus arrived one hour later, or take an expensive taxi?


At the last second, I tried instead of EasyRide, to buy a fixed ticket for the two-stop bus journey. To my amazement, it worked using Apple Pay! This made no sense to me. Why would SBB support Apple Pay for a regular fixed journey ticket but not for EasyRide? When did this change? It worked just fine on my last trip. Why did SBB not communicate this information more visibly and clearly to the customers trying to buy a ticket while running to catch the bus?


An attempt to preserve User’s Control and Freedom is reflected in the new Right to Repair laws. In 2023 the European Union, among others, passed laws granting consumers rights to repair their devices. These new laws may apply to the practice of Parts Pairing. Using Parts pairing manufacturers disable or “brick” products if combined or repaired with parts from another manufacturer. For example, multi-function printers can reject off-brand inks and are programmed to block functions that do not even require ink, such as scanning and faxing.


Another negative example of denying users’ control is the recent trend to require subscriptions for products or services. In the past, one bought a computer hardware and software out right. Now, many software companies such as Adobe and Microsoft have transitioned to subscription models, making it difficult if not impossible to pay for software all at once. The automotive industry is following closely behind. BMW tried recently to charge customers for using heated seats and ApplePlay in their cars. The customers outcry against this forced BMW to reverse course. General Motors is projecting subscriptions will bringing significant revenue from 2 billion in 2021 to 25 billion USD by 2030, similar to revenues of Netflix, Spotify, and Peloton.


This overbearing corporate behavior is described by Cory Doctorow in his 2020 book, Unauthorized Bread. In this dystopian world, landlords subsidize rents with kick-backs from household product sales by preventing residents from using lower cost alternative “unauthorized” products such as bread in their toasters and “unauthorized” foods in their microwaves and fridges. Tenants reprogramming or “jailbreaking” their products to remove this restriction are threatened with eviction. These profit driven corporations force tenants to use high-priced low-quality authorized products only. These dystopian practices are starting to creep into our daily lives padding corporate profits while alienating and trapping users.




POSITIVE EXAMPLES – User Control & Freedom Heuristic Upheld

Brands that support Users’ Control and Freedom gain customers’ respect and loyalty and improve their bottom line. One famous case study called “300 Million Dollar Button,” had a giant online experience a significant increase in sales after they removed the forced registration from their website’s purchase flow — they gave their customers the freedom to use guest access instead. The results:

“The number of customers purchasing went up by 45%. The extra purchases resulted in an extra $15 million the first month. For the first year, the site saw an additional $300,000,000.” Source:

The fashion brand discussed above that annoys its customers with forced registration can learn a valuable lesson by turning fewer visitors away at their digital front-door.


Other positive examples include fashion brands like Patagonia. I was shopping one day at a local Patagonia shop and I found a nice raincoat. It was on sale so I decided to get it. At the cash register with my credit card in-hand the sales guy said to me, “if you don’t need it, it doesn’t matter if it is on sale.” He reminded me that I had another perfectly good raincoat at home. I left the store in disbelief without buying anything. A Patagonia ad from 2011 read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket … We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.” The brand focuses on environmental impact. Following the release of these ads Patagonia public image strengthened, sales rose by one third, and 14 new stores were opened.

Patagonia New York Times Ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday, November 25, 2011 Common Threads Initiative: Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine. Together we reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.

FIGURE: Patagonia New York Times Ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday, Nov. 25, 2011


It is possible for a single product to both uphold and violate the User Control & Freedom heuristic. One positive example comes from the same SBB app discussed earlier. I was traveling to my friend’s house using a fixed route ticket, purchased using the app in advance at a discount. During my trip, because of some technical problems along the route, the connection I was planning to make changed automatically inside the app. The app communicated this to me clearly using both colour and icons. The information appeared in place, on the route display that I was already using. The app also provided warnings about route changes and gave technical reasons behind these changes.

SBB Transit app displaying train cancellations within previously planned route directions including warnings, reasons for problem, and later alternative route suggestions.

FIGURE: SBB app with Route Change warning clearly visible.


Another positive example was demonstrated by change management efforts undertaken by Evernote, under guidance of CEO Ian Small, my university friend and colleague. In a podcast Ian describes this significant effort to rebuild Evernote’s core software to replace their five separate code bases and different user interfaces that evolved on top of their 10-year-old code base. In the podcast he discusses the mantra that served the organization during the transformation: “Communication, Communication, Communication.” The company worked to get buy-in across all stakeholders including users, development teams, and investors. Communication of expectations and transparency regarding the upcoming changes made this transition a success. The organization quickly exceeded pre-transformation ratings and attracted new customers with novel uses for the updated software. Giving people information during the upgrading process and roll-out won loyalty from new and old customers.





The choice to give users control or not falls on product designers. The designers report to large organizations that are bottom-line-driven. As we have seen in these examples, it is possible to both give users control and improve the bottom line.


All the negative examples above demonstrate the power imbalance. Customers are trapped trying to use their own devices over which they have limited control. In each of the negative examples, designers ignored Users’ Control and Freedom heuristic. Due to the high costs of switching, customers were trapped needing to use their phones, PVRs, or apps. Trapped customers are not loyal. They share stories of their negative experiences with their family and friends and write negative reviews online. Trapped customers will seek alternative solutions when time comes to renew their services or update their products and apps.


Providers who can incorporate the important heuristic of User Control and Freedom into their products and address the power imbalance will gain respect, appreciation, and an advantage over their domineering competitors. Unhappy customers abandon products they cannot control. Finding new customers is difficult and costs five-times more than keeping old customers happy. Thus, organizations hoping to grow their customer base need to consider this important heuristic of User Control and Freedom in product and service design, or pay the price.




Nielsen, J. & Molich, R. (1990). “Heuristic evaluation of user interfaces,” Proceedings of ACM CHI’90 Conference, Seattle, WA, 1–5 April, pg. 249–256

“Our research showed that digital customer satisfaction is negatively affected by frequent updates,” personal communication, UX colleague in the Financial Industry.

Spool, Jared (2009). “Three Hundred Million Button,” Published January 14, 2009, retrieved Feb 28, 2024., retrieved Mar 31, 2024.

Hwang, C., & Lee, Y., Diddi, S., & Karpova, E. (2016). “Don’t buy this jacket”: Consumer reaction toward anti-consumption apparel advertisement. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 20(4), 435-452.

Hawkins, A.J. (2022). “The Future of Cars is a Subscription Nightmare,” The Verge, July 13, 2022., retrieved Mar 31, 2024.

Cory Doctorow, 2020. Unauthorized Bread.

Code Story Podcast, Interview with Ian Small CEO of Evernote retrieved Mar 12, 2024.

“Welcome to Evernote Behind the Scenes,” YouTube video,, retrieved Mar 22, 2024.