How Lock-In Hurts Design

January 30, 2024
3 Minute Read

I was reading an article from Cory Doctorow the other day talking about design and lock-in. A lot of what he was talking about spoke to me.

There’s a lot of talk about the battle John Deere is waging against our right to repair. For those unfamiliar with this, John Deere is trying to stop farmers who have bought John Deere tractors from having them repaired or worked on by anyone other than John Deere, thus making them more expensive to repair and maintain. Without competition, John Deere can jack up the prices, leaving farmers stuck paying more.

Something similar has been happening on the web and I’ve always had a hard time articulating it. Cory described what I’ve been feeling.

This is why services are so horny to drive you to install their app rather using their websites: they are trying to get you to do something that, given your druthers, you would prefer not to do. They want to force you to exit through the gift shop, you want to carve a desire path straight to the parking lot. Apps let them mobilize the law to literally criminalize those desire paths.

Cory is talking about how so many websites have become ad-infected messes. Know where it’s incredibly difficult to block ads? Apps. Companies know that on just about every platform, users can install ad blockers to block ads. To block ads on apps requires additional work that the majority of people either won’t bother or don’t know how to do.

Calling an action where no alternatives are permissible a "preference" or a "choice" is a cheap trick – especially when considered against the "preferences" that reveal themselves when a real choice is possible.

People choose not to receive ads in their web browser of choice because ads today have become so annoying and in-your-face that people don’t want them. Have you seen some mobile websites? Many have ads and sponsored content that take up 2/3 or more of the screen. They’re unusable! And none of this takes into account the security side of things where some ad networks have malware as part of their ads. It’s no wonder more and more people are saying “to hell with this!” and installing an ad blocker.

Saying people are choosing to receive ads on your mobile app when there is no “off” setting on the app, and your mobile website is unusable, isn’t really a choice.

Apps – and other technologies that are locked down so their users can be locked in – are the height of technological arrogance. They embody a belief that users are to be told, not heard. If a user wants to do something that the designer didn't anticipate, that's the user's fault.

I block ads. I do so unapologetically. If your website becomes unusable because I block the ads, I’m not going to disable my ad blocker, I’m just going to close the tab.