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blog: Don Marti

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the colored pencil test for web features

04 August 2022

A web browser has a fiduciary duty to its user. A web browser is the agent of the user, and the user agent is expected to align fully with the person using it and operate exclusively in that person's interest. But how can we figure out what is and isn't in the user's interest? Some browser functionality is stuff that the user asks for, but other browser functionality can do more complex tasks for the user. Not every user has time to learn and understand everything the browser does for them. Maybe a story from space exploration history can provide at least a start to figuring this out.

In 1965, NASA scientists received the first images of Mars from the Mariner 4 probe, as numbers printed on paper tape. In order to see the image, they translated the numbers to colors and drew individual pixels with colored pencils.

hand-colored picture of Mars

Today, your web browser probably does something similar, many times a day. It turns a set of image data, from a file format such as PNG or JPEG, into a set of colored pixels that you can see as an image.

If, as a user, you had the time, you would probably choose to do exactly what the browser does. You want to see the images on a web site you visit. Other browser features, maybe not so much. Because the browser is supposed to be the agent of the user, a helpful way to answer the question, should the browser do this? is Would the user do this themselves if they had time?

For some browser functionality, answers can be found in the history of technology. People have put bookmarks in books and make bibliographies as long as there have been books. So it makes a lot of sense for browsers to offer users a bookmark feature. But the more novel a feature gets, the harder it is to figure out whether to do it without more forward-thinking user research.

  • When you buy something, would you tell the seller about every ad you saw for the thing you just bought? Would you tell them if they promised to mix up your answers with other people's and do math on them so they can't tell what any one person said?

  • On your first visit to a new site, would you choose to tell the site about some of the topics that you're interested in?

People do provide information about themselves to other parties they deal with. The browser's role is to understand and facilitate the information sharing that people would choose to do on their own, if they had the time to learn about it, keep the necessary records, and answer questions. (For example, a browser might offer to auto-populate "where did you see our ad" fields on order forms, if user research shows that people are willing to fill in that field.)

A lot of user research has shown that people don't like the online advertising practices of today, but there needs to be more research on what they would accept. Ultimately the browser works for the user, and it would be a waste of resources to go too far down a direction that's too different from what people would choose to do for themselves.

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