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The Dangers of User-Unfriendly Clarity

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

a drop of water disturbs a clear pool

The job of UX writers is to draft clear, concise copy, but that isn’t the entire job. Clear, concise language is not enough to create user-friendly content. Clarity alone is not always a good thing.

As C. Thi Nguyen argues, when we feel like something is clear, we’re more likely to stop investigating it because we feel like we understand it. This sense of clarity can sometimes lead us to stop our investigation too soon. If we’re given an overly clear but inaccurate picture, we may be more likely to accept that picture instead of questioning it. Call this the seduction of clarity.

Now combine this potential problem with the concept of value capture, which is what happens when we replace our more complex values with simpler (usually numeric) representations of those values. Over time, the simple values tend to replace the more complicated values in our thoughts and actions.

See, for example, a student who replaces their value of learning with the value of getting all A’s. The numbers might appear to show that the student is learning, but the student might be coasting by in easier classes. Or maybe a student is learning but doesn’t feel like they are because they’re getting B’s and C’s.

The ease of getting sucked into an overly clear yet inaccurate system + the tendency of value capture to shape our values and actions represent real problems for contemporary apps and services that take complex, value-laden enterprises like learning a language, trying to be healthy, or dating and simplify them into digestible products.

There is an ever-present danger of user-unfriendly clarity.

Case Study: MyFitnessPal

Let’s look at MyFitnessPal, a popular fitness app, to see how this kind of clarity can make users’ lives worse.

(Quick author’s disclosure before we get into this discussion—I am thin and relatively fit. When I used MyFitnessPal regularly about 10 years ago, it contributed to an eating disorder I had at the time. These experiences shape my view of the app, and my perspective does not exhaust the potential issues users could encounter.)

MyFitnessPal is an app that combines several different health metrics and trackers in one place. There’s a step counter, calorie counter, meal tracker, exercise tracker, macro tracker, and more, depending on which paid or unpaid version you use. For people trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or stick to a more regular exercise schedule, MyFitnessPal provides a clear set of goals that can be easily tracked over time.

This appears to solve a user problem by making fitness easy to understand and track. However, the numbers and metrics MyFitnessPal uses are at best overly simplistic and at worst misleading. Let’s run through a few key examples of ethically dubious clarity in the app, both in the structure of the concepts used and in microcopy word choice.

Here are some key screens from the start of my user journey when I created a new account:

There are three app onboarding screens. The first screen has the options "gain muscle" and "manage stress" selected for goals. The second selects the goal "Get strong - you want to lift the maximum amount of weight and are not concerned with body fat or muscle definition." The third screen has three goals selected for stress management: do a strength workout, do yoga or other fitness class, and listen to music.

Note that I indicated I was not concerned with body fat or muscle definition, that I was not interested in setting goals around weight, and that my preferred stress-relieving activities did not include walking or running.

👟 10,000 Steps a Day

Even if you’ve never used MyFitnessPal, you probably are familiar with the idea that you should get 10,000 steps every day. This is one of the first goals the app sets for you when you create an account, seemingly regardless of whether you indicate you want to set that goal. (I was able to adjust the daily step goal in settings, but it didn’t seem like there was an option to get rid of it.)

While it is beneficial for able-bodied people to move throughout the day, the 10,000 steps number overly simplifies exercise and fitness goals. It does not track rowing, gymnastics, yoga, and other exercises that do not produce step counts, nor does it track any walking done without a step-tracker of some kind.

These limitations may seem obvious to consumers. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the combination of the clarity of the 10,000 steps number and the gamification of the exercise goal through daily trackers can easily reroute users’ motivations and actions to align with the simplified 10,000 steps goal, even if they know it’s overly simplified.

Instead of training users to be more conscious about their health needs and holistic relationship to exercise, the 10,000 steps number trains users to be more conscious about whether they are carrying a phone or step-tracker with them and how close they are to meeting their daily step goal. When the goal isn’t met, users are likely to feel shame.

I imagine we each know someone who religiously works to get their 10,000 steps a day, even when they need to rest. As someone who used to be this person, I still sometimes check my step count through Apple’s Health app, and I often feel disappointed if my walk didn’t take me over 10,000 steps. That disappointment and shame doesn’t change even if I really needed to rest to prevent an injury.

These feelings can be reinforced by small bits of microcopy. For example, the default steps and weight trackers on the home page are placed in a section titled “Progress,” which is a value-laden term. You can see this in the second screen below.

The first screen is the upper main page of the app. The first section the user sees is titled Calories, and the number of daily calories is most prominent in this section. Above that number is the text "remaining = goal - food + exercise." The second screen is the lower half of the main page, with a section titled "Progress" that has Weight and Steps trackers underneath it.

🥗 Calories In, Calories Out

MyFitnessPal also provides daily calorie goals, tailored from a few metrics and goals that users provide. The microcopy that explains calorie goals in the above screen states: “calories remaining = goal – food + exercise.” The basic idea here is “calories in, calories out,” where the calories in are the food and the calories out are the user’s base metabolism + exercise.

Calories in, calories out isn’t itself wrong, but there are a lot of complicating factors that are left out of this simple equation, primarily when it comes to user metabolism. For example, someone with a hormonal disorder might gain weight regardless of whether they eat and exercise the way the app suggests.

Weight loss is notoriously difficult, and scientists are still working to understand the multiple biological processes that interact to make up our metabolism, both at rest and during exercise. There is relatively little information that goes into the calorie goal set by MyFitnessPal, but the app doesn’t do a good job of providing disclaimers about hidden complexities—more on this in a minute.

This excessive simplicity and apparent ease of dieting is a problem because it may lead users to think that they are at fault when they can’t follow this simple equation or don’t meet their goals. This attitude may be further reinforced by our cultural ideas about weight and self-discipline, which almost always blame the dieter and not the diet.

🚻 Biological Norms

The first screen has the option selected for "not very active." The second screen asks the user to select either Male or Female to calculate calorie needs, as well as some other basic information. Underneath the M/F options is a link titled "Which one should I choose?"

MyFitnessPal obscures other relevant biological complexities by simply leaving them out of the app. There is no option to register any kind of disability when signing up for an account. For those with chronic fatigue, arthritis, paralysis, and other disabilities that make 10,000 steps a day an inappropriate goal, the app offers little, if any, recognition.

Similarly, users can pick between only two options when asked to input their sex to receive their calorie goal. There is a small link that users can click on for more information about which sex they should choose, but the short article it leads to only covers trans individuals undergoing hormone therapy from either binary sex. There is no intersex option.

The implicit assumptions that users fully fit into binary sex categories and are able-bodied leaves out an important set of users who may have more individualized fitness goals than the app can provide. Instead of sticking to the overly simple categories and proceeding as if they are exhaustive, the more responsible thing to do would be to either include those users or acknowledge the app’s limits.

🏋️ Assuming User Goals

The first screen is a confirmation screen to indicate the onboarding process is complete. The text reads: "Congratulations! Your custom plan is ready and you're one step closer to your goal weight. Your daily net calorie goal is: 1,620 calories. Beneath it are three checked options to: keep me on track with reminders, use my phone to track my steps, and send me the latest news, innovations and offers from MyFitnessPal. The second screen is an automatic meal diary log that pops up after the confirm screen.

When I entered my goals at the beginning of the account creation process, you will remember that I wanted to gain strength with no concern about weight gain, loss, or maintenance. Once I got through the account creation process, I received the following confirm message: “Your custom plan is ready and you’re one step closer to your goal weight.”

I’m going to copy exactly what I wrote when I saw this, sans the mild profanity, to communicate my emotional state at the time: “I DON’T HAVE A GOAL WEIGHT. THAT’S THE POINT.” I was angry, because, with my history of an eating disorder, it’s not good for me to focus on hitting a goal weight. I tend to get obsessed with the number in a way that leads me to neglect my actual health.

For example, when I had the goal of eating between 1200-1600 calories a day, I could not eat food without thinking about how many calories were in the food and how those calories would contribute to my daily total. If I thought about eating anything that was calorie dense, I would feel exceptionally guilty. But, because I was denying myself, the temptation to eat the “bad” foods was much greater.

I thought about food constantly and felt like I had little control over my cravings. Whenever I failed to meet a calorie goal, I saw it as a moral failing. Now that I no longer count calories, I eat a much healthier variety of foods and am much less obsessed with food. I can now focus on what my body needs instead of the deceptively clear number of calories.

The point here isn’t that my current way of relating to food is the right one, the point is that MyFitnessPal is overly simplistic in its assumptions about what its users’ goals and needs are in a way that can harm users. Even if users go in without a complicated history with eating, the app is structured in a way that could easily encourage an eating disorder.

Note too that the app automatically asked me to enter my meals into a food diary. Food diaries can be useful for some users who need to make sure they’re getting enough protein, eating a good variety of foods, or just remembering to eat, but they can also be complicated for people with a history of eating disorders.

👥 Social Pressure

The first screen is a profile page with two metrics: 0lbs Lost and 0 Friends. The second is a page prompting the user to sign up for a premium plan. The largest text reads: "Say hello to your best self." There is a small, hard to find X in the upper right hand corner.

The first few issues I’ve discussed are bad enough, but MyFitnessPal also allows users to add friends to share goals. This creates an extra layer of social pressure that reinforces the goals the app sets for users. On the profile screen above, we can see another example of the app wrongly assuming user goals, as the key, highlighted profile metric is the number of pounds lost.

Last but not least, the second screen (which I’ve moved later in the user journey) negs users with the statement “Say hello to your best self,” implying that the user is not already their best self. Did you see the X in the upper right-hand corner of that screen? I did not, and I closed the app out of frustration because I didn’t think I could access the main screen without inputting my credit card information.

These are not small issues, and many of them are not unique to MyFitnessPal. MyFitnessPal just happens to effectively combine common ideas about weight, exercise, and health into bite-sized, trackable numbers. But these bite-sized metrics can encourage unhealthy behaviors and exclude important user bases. This is a significant ethical problem.

I’m not positive there’s a way to completely fix MyFitnessPal, but the app could 1) do a better job of catering to a broader user base with a greater diversity of goals and needs and 2) add more disclaimers to explain where parts of the app are overly simplified. Instead of creating a false sense of clarity, the app should acknowledge where complexities and gaps in understanding exist.

What should this case teach us? The fundamental job of UX writers is not to write clearly, it’s to think about how to design content that serves the needs of users. For the most part, clear writing leads to happy users whose needs are met. But in some cases, clear writing leads to unhappy users and makes their lives worse.

UX writers have an ethical duty to think about how their words affect the user, but they also have an ethical duty to think about what their product’s conceptual frame communicates and encourages. What values are at stake? Have they been deceptively simplified? How will the product’s structures affect what users value and do? A little philosophy can go a long way to making users’ lives better.

Image Credit: Robert Anderson

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