A better user experience...or?

Everyone wants to provide a ‘great user experience’ to their customers. And why not, it’s a big part of what creates loyal users. In fact, in today’s tech environment there’s a user expectation that all products need to have genuinely well-crafted user experiences. Without one, the product simply won’t succeed. The talent, resources, and logistics needed to create these are costly for companies and that cost usually gets passed on to the user. But what about all those “free” options out there? Is there a price we’re not aware of?

Facebook VPN

Facebook recently launched a new app the other day on iOS called `Facebook Protect’. Facebook themselves is marketing the feature as giving their users “peace of mind” and an “added layer of security” by routing web traffic through its servers. While this sounds great in theory, the truth is far from it. What the app also does is collect and analyze data about all your online presence; data that Facebook will use in any way they see fit. This feature is essentially spyware and hidden under a ‘Read more’ is this:

To provide this layer of protection, Onavo uses a VPN to establish a secure connection to direct all of your network communications through Onavo’s servers. As part of this process, Onavo collects your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. Because we’re part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and services people value, and build better experiences.

While some users may feel fine about Facebook collecting data on their online usage for a free VPN client, the great majority are unaware of this consequence. Using this app gives them permission to scrutinize your entire mobile behavior across any app or service. Facebook will have a huge advantage in spotting trends across the entire mobile ecosystem.

The app may collect your mobile data traffic to help us recognize tactics that bad actors use. Over time, this helps the tool work better for you and others.

It’s not like the app may collect your mobile data traffic - it will. It’s spyware and if you’re using the feature, Facebook is tracking you everywhere on the Internet.


Unroll.me positioned itself as a tool that helps you unsubscribe from all those unwanted newsletters filling up your email. At first, people loved this service and best of all, it’s free! As we are learning, there’s no such thing as a with free service. Just as Facebook is using your online activity as a means of purchase, Unroll capitalized by analyzing the one thing it had access to. Your email.

They were first caught because Uber had been buying data from Unroll based on emails containing Lyft purchase receipts. While it’s pretty clear that this is a possibility if you read the terms of service (ToS), almost no one did. ToSs are jumbled, complicated legal documents that aren’t built to be accessible to the general public. Most of us who lightly browse them likely don’t give the Privacy Policy a second thought as data is rarely used for anything beyond the usual “improvements to our service.” Well here’s the result: Unrolls is a actually a tool to collect competitive intelligence, aka, a very boring form of corporate spying.

“Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.
And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.”

Give me a fucking break. They’re not “heartbroken” because their users are upset. They’re in damage-control mode because they were operating under the radar and now they’ve been revealed, very publicly, as the shitbags that they are. If you’ve signed up for Unroll.me, delete your account. They make money by selling your purchase receipts to the highest bidder. That’s their business.John Gruber

As the shit storm of the year for Unroll eventually blew over, they added a ‘Why we don’t charge you for this amazing service’ link to their front page essentially describing that they’ll analyze your email and sell anonymized versions of it. A little to late to the show, if you ask me.


Finally, Grammarly is a service I’m a fan of and use often. It’s a plugin that checks your writing for typos and errors. The premises is that Grammarly continuously checks your writing, analyzes it, and results in you growing into a better writer. However, like all things free on the Internet, there’s a hidden paragraph in their ToS showing how it’s not free at all:

By uploading or entering any User Content, you give Grammarly (and those it works with) a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free and fully-paid, transferable and sublicensable, perpetual, and irrevocable license to copy, store and use your User Content.

You grant them a “perpetual, and irrevocable” right to everything you write and spellcheck on their platform. The future of software: it is expensive, awful, and you have no rights.

Now in their defense, you can argue that they can’t operate their service without having the right to analyze the data (e.g. your writing). As I read that paragraph, my understanding is that if I use Grammarly as a tool while writing a book, they could claim ownership of that book once it’s written. Should there be a transfer of rights after a stated expiration period? Ideally. Shouldn’t I be able to turn the feature on/off easily to protect my content when I want to? Definitely.

The entire thread here and Grammarly’s response is well worth a read.

Are YOU the Product?

The gist of the story is this - if you’re not paying for it, YOU are the product. But does that really give companies the right to do whatever they want as long as they hide a paragraph about it in their Terms of the Service document? Is their ‘great user experience’ just a bait and switch?

I’m a firm believer that truly great user experiences take a long time to build because it’s essentially based on trust. Like any relationship, once a trust is broken it’s a pain in the ass to rebuild. So why not be open with the terms? If more services to adopt user-based choices - either pay a monthly fee or agree to their collection of data - we’d have far more trust in the products we use. Hiding behind that tiny paragraph in the ToS doesn’t grow relationships with the user and, ultimately, hurts the experience. So, let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we actually use our favorite digital products or do they use us?

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