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Disempowering users

Lots of products are said to “empower” their users compared to the state-of-the-art. This tends to mean adding new “features” to an existing product. The opposite, “disempowering” users by taking things away, is less discussed. I suggest that, on the contrary, disempowerment does not lead to “worse” technology, it leads to different technology which can have advantages over the current tech.

“Disempowerments” are especially interesting in social programs. By disempowering an individual user, you can empower several other users as a result, and empower the group as a whole. The disempowered user continues to use the program, because of the increased power of the group.

Chat programs allow the user to hide what they’re typing before they “send” it. This empowers the typist. What happens if you remove this power, and let everyone know what they are typing? It leads to a different power: the power to communicate instantly.

The internet eliminates physical distance between users. What if you remove this power, so users can only communicate with people in their area? You get “geofenced” social networks, where users feel safer communicating.

Social apps usually let you store things forever, and save things that are shared with you. What do you get if you remove this? Snapchat, where users feel safer sharing “risqué” things.

Forums let you post under a username. What if you remove all usernames, and force anonymity? You get 4chan, a community with no social restrictions.

Web systems traditionally allow users to identify using pseudonyms. What if you remove this ability, and force them to use their real name? You get Facebook’s “real name” policy, intended to allow users to trust each other.

Remote education traditionally allows users to follow the material at their own pace (Open University). What if you remove this ability, and force the users into artificial start dates and deadlines? You get Coursera, where users are bucketed into groups, fostering teams, teamwork and a sense of purpose.

A “running group” app might let users propose new running groups. What if you remove this power, and dictate the groups? You get runners organized into effective groups, with no burden of self-organization.

Dating apps let you continue chatting for as long as you like. What if you set a communication limit? You get focussed, purposeful chat. What if you forcibly upgrade the communication medium to something more immediate, like audio/video? You get a simulation of how communication progresses in the real world.

Internet radio lets users listen to anything, anywhere. What if you have to be in a specific location to listen to it? You get “geofenced radio”, encouraging like-minded people to gather in the same place. Geofencing can make any non-social media into a real-world social event.

Personal programs

“Disempowerments” in personal programs can be used as tools for focus.

“Todo list” applications let you check off anything on the list and rearrange it. What if you only allow the user to check off the top item, and only add to the bottom? You get a queue. What if you can only add to the top, too? You get a stack. Both model forms of task ordering which force the user to focus.

“Todo list” applications let you have as many items as you like. What if it were limited to 10 items? The user is forced to look at unfinished tasks and reconsider their value. It’s a personal WIP limit.

Text editors let the user edit all parts of the text. What if you could only edit the end of the text? You get a “typing buffer”, a tool encouraging stream-of-consciousness writing.

Window systems let the user switch from any window to any other window, near-instantly. What if window-switching took significant time, perhaps proportional to the distance in the window-switcher? You get a system which models the real world of objects: you have to expend time and energy to move between them. The user gets a space in which to focus.

Blogging platforms let you type as much as you like. What if you restrict the text to 140 characters? You get Twitter.

Blogging platforms let you control the style of your blog. What if you remove this power, and enforce a plain style with minimal formatting? You get Medium.


The gaming world is full of these “disempowerments”. Driving games let you turn left and right. What if you can only turn left? Interesting puzzles follow.

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