Exploring adversarial UX

Adversarial UX is UX which is only concerned in the interests of the user. This concern is not altered by the interests of the business. Negative business impact is no more avoided than positive business impact is pursued. This UX stance is interesting to explore because it is the practical application of the common UX posture we see in the community.

This is very similar to the duplicitous nature of HR in most organisations.

The HR department usually has a posture of concern for the interests of the employee, but in reality this concern is limited by their concern for the interests of the business.

HR will help an employee with anything that does not hurt the business and they will encourage any behaviour which helps the business. HR will not encourage behaviour that hurts the business and will manage the impact on the employee when their interests are in conflict with those of the business.

UX, as we know it, will help the user with anything that does not hurt the business and will encourage behaviour which helps the business. UX will not encourage behaviour that hurts the business and will manage the impact on the user when their interests are in conflict with those of the business.

The posture of UX

UX content online creates the impression that UX professionals are doing what they do for the users, for the sake of the users. This means that the sentiment is around ideas which aim to remove any pains a person might experience in using a product. The benefits which said product brings to that person’s life are not in question, just the barriers between that person and the product itself.

This focus on the virtues of the experience rather than the virtues of the product is why conversation flows freely between UX professionals, regardless of the nature of the product they work on.

Why this posture fails

If the role of UX is to enhance user's experience of a product, it is inevitable, at some point, that the interests of the user will conflict with the interests of the business. The general posture of UX: designing for the users for the sake of the users, means these conflicts of interest can be a problem.

It’s not unheard of for a UX professional to push for the interests of the user in some scenarios, but there will always be an underlying boundary where the impact on the interests of the business will be the deciding force.

This economic reality takes the general UX posture of “designing for the users, for the sake of the users” and translates it to “designing for the users, for the sake of the business”.

To safeguard the interests of the user over those of the business is not possible in practice as the UX people are paid by the company even though they, by the dint of their profession, work for the user first and foremost.

This is general principle at play here. They who pay your salary are they whose experience you are ultimately concerned about for the payer is the de factor user, not the consumer of the service.

This paints a clearer picture of why UX articles and discussion tend to be product agnostic. Because the question of how the product really affects a person’s life is unique to the product, and will almost certainly result in a harsh conflict of business and user interests.

What UX has become

There is an extent to what UX can be. This is a role focused on keeping people using the product and making the product attractive for new people to adopt it, because that’s what serves the business. What serves the business serves the shareholders, at the cost of the interests (not the experience) of the user. Or more bluntly, UX has become, or always was, SX — Shareholder Experience.

This is captured in the definition of UX as a discipline, as coined by Donald Norman in the 90’s when he was the Vice President of Product Design at Apple. His consultancy company, the Nielsen Norman Group defines UX as:

"All aspects of the end user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products" Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen

Notice, it has nothing to do with the interests of the user, rather the focus on interaction

This brand of UX reduces a person’s relationship to the product to the quality of their emotions while using it.

As long as the focus is on interaction it will be limited to interface, like where the user touches the software or where the software touches the user — where the interaction happens in terms of its aesthetics and usability — both cosmetic to the user’s internal experience of the product. It can’t, and won’t, go beyond into the depth of the user story, keeping their interests alive.

But when you go beyond interaction and into the interests of the user you have to talk about the psychological aspect, social aspect, what are the people thinking? Who are they? What are they interested in in life? It will become much more internalized, specific to each person’s perspective. Whereas with interaction, it’s more about the software’s interface with the world, which leaves much less room to factor in elements of people’s lived experience of the world.

As a result, UX, in practice, is interested in the user’s well-being only insofar as it deals with the the user’s financial impression of the thing that they are interacting with.

What UX should be: Adversarial

If there is anything that their posture demonstrates it is that UX professionals intend to do what they do for the user, for the sake of the user.

The only way to do this to the fullest extent is to take an adversarial stance towards those profiting from the product.

This stance opens the possibility to enact protections for the users health - mental, physical, moral, economic, and political - regardless of the financial impact to the shareholders.

The UX team will be responsible for an audit to ensure user, and potential user, interests are not in conflict with the product vision. If a conflict is found the company would have to realign that vision and any product planning to resolve this.

During the life of the product the UX team will remain vigilant and catch any action, design decision, or technical specification which is ignorant of the user interests.

This role is concerned with more than pleasure or ease of use, it considers the moral compass of the user and aids them in every which way toward a lawful use of the product. Users should be able to safely operate the product, especially if it is an app used often for highly relevant things in life. The hazards of digital products may not be as visible as those of a physical product, but part of being a professional is being able to show that which is hard to see.

The UX team should sit in product meetings, much like a union leader in management meetings, as the hawk in the room. They care more about the users (as a union leader does the workers) than the profits of the company and they should be empowered to exercise authority on this. It is through this dialogical process where UX represents the users, and the Board represents the company, that a balance can be struck. This is the adversarial game that needs to be played, beyond such pithy, yet true sounding, Steve Jobs quotes like “If the user is having a problem, it’s our problem”, or “You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology — not the other way round.”

This adversarial stance is in contrast to other teams in an organisation such as sales, engineering, or product, where the stance is unambiguously as an ally to the business.

Economics of an adversarial UX team

If the users got together and directly paid the UX pros from their common fund, as based on their collective level of satisfaction, that would more closely reflect the economics of the UX posture.

As an UX pro, If you are working for the benefit of the users but instead of them paying you directly, their payment is being routed through a series of intermediaries -- ranging from the accounts and treasury team to the sales team to the upper level managers -- it means you are de facto beholden to the nearest and the loudest of these intermediaries, which are those higher up in your company.

Between the two sides of the business transaction — the company making and selling the product, and the user who is consuming it, the sales team, the devs team, they should all be on the side of the of the company, but the UX team should be firmly on the side of the user. To that extent, UX pros should be in alignment with consumer protection agencies to the extent of

UX professional ought to team up with consumer protection professionals and create independent external bodies to audit companies for their faithfulness to user interests. These audits can result in a wide action of action, such as guidance on what is and is not permissible (for example, addictive design patterns) to the filing of class action law suits.

To that extent, there might need to be a state mandated or a blockchain based commons funding of a UBI for UX professionals, so they are not financial beholden to the shareholders responsible for these products. Maybe UX professionals should be tax-funded government employees.


UX should be about pleasing users for the user’s sake, not the boss’s. This means thinking on behalf of the users when the user can’t or is not allowed to, or remains incapable.

The adversarial stance of UX may sound extreme but it’s clear that software is eating everything at an enormous rate. We are heading towards, and in some ways we are already in, a world of unchecked product experiences for which many of us do not have an alternative. Products can be imposed on us by an employer, government, or by the constraints caused by our own circumstances.

Software compatibility goes far beyond the technical requirements of an internet connected device, and the success of a digital product can be measured in more ways than market adoption.

One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one's own self. In brief, this is dharma [The Way of Life In Practice]. Anything else is succumbing to desire. — Mahābhārata 13.114.8

Resist, UX comrades out there.