Consent Fatigue by Karunakar Rayker @krayker

Recently, the Justice SriKrishna Committee came out with its draft White Paper on Data Protection framework for India. One of the key issues mentioned in the report was regarding Consent Fatigue. While the Whitepaper delves into the Consent issue at a policy level, we can see it at a micro level & around us in our everyday lives. Let us explore the issue through the eyes of an ordinary user, Ramesh.

1984 was a memorable year for Ramesh, the year he got his first computer, the ZX Spectrum. He was the smartest kid in the block & he loved his gadgets, the ZX Spectrum & Samurai Game Console. His favorite movie was The Terminator. Ramesh was proud of his technical prowess and way ahead of his time.

Fast forward a few years, he’s now a successful doctor. By the time he was done with higher education & internship, something drastically changed all around him. Years of burying himself in the books, left him with very little time to chase gadgets & technology. He now jokes that he’s a tech luddite & all at sea with the latest phones, apps and software.
Ramesh now finds himself as an average person in a digital first world, his window to the world is a digital interface. Services of various kinds from government, banking, medical, social media to entertainment are all digital; consumed in various devices – a TV, a smartphone, game console or a PC. He has to decide choosing/ subscribing/ paying for his devices & services to securing and keeping the software of his various devices up to date.
He laughs at his own naivety, when he’s assaulted with an array of vague to verbose dialog boxes, presented with choices he has difficulty in comprehending, some confusing, others being cryptic or even frightening. He talks to himself “Of course I can read up; but hey, not every person is a software engineer!”

He wonders at the barrage of decision making he faces, which only grows over time. Is he alone in giving up, in throwing his hands up in despair? Is he at fault, OR couldn’t it have been simpler? Ramesh isn’t alone in this quandary. We all are ‘users’ in this digital age, and our interface is broken. We get exasperated, some to a smaller extent, while others simply give up!

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Do they design the software intentionally to be tough? No. Were the App/ software developers inept? Probably not.Didn’t they think of the users? Maybe not.

For regular users like Ramesh, the transition to a digital world has not been seamless one. Mistakes may have been made by the Service/ Software developers, and as a result, we all face the challenges while paying our bills, installing an app or even hopping onto a Metro.

The average user just wants an interface, something he or she can understand & one that talks to him better! Could all of this confusion and exasperation be avoided?

The Answer is yes, to a great extent, right while developing the interface of the product/ service. By user-testing & removing bulk of the flaws early in the development cycle, the Product/ Service can be then be refined and bettered continuously. In fact we have been seeing it over the years. Every following hardware or software iteration has been improved upon, and one, the user readily accepted (even if it did not address the problem completely, but was not as annoying as the previous one).

Ramesh complains that he has trouble on his return to normal computing – that is using a PC, a Smartphone, WiFi, Smart TV etc. He’s annoyed with all those popup messages, Anti-Virus alerts, updates, acronyms & he simply clicks “yes” to ALL, saying it’s overwhelming!

Let’s try to understand his angst, break up his pain points.

Dialog Box Fatigue

This debate has been going on for the longest time in the way security has been handled in Unix/ Linux & Windows. At least until Microsoft handled it better in Windows 7. For reasons best known to Microsoft, in early versions of windows, Security wasn’t the top priority. This led to a lot of issues with virus & malware running riot. When Microsoft finally got around to addressing security issue in Windows Vista – it was a nightmare for the user. UAC or User Account Control was the silver bullet to all the years of criticism that Microsoft had to cop. But it was the User who finally had to cope with the constant bombardment of Dialog Boxes.

Want to install a Software? UAC.

Or gems like this:

“Are you really sure you want to quit.” after the “Are you sure you want to quit.”


Worse still, in this case Dialog box fatigue led to crafty, devious and enterprising people to float ads which mimicked the OS and led to Malware or software asking elevated privileges/ root access. Another unintended nightmare to deal with. The temporary solution was to retrain users to do it the right way. Ugh. Things have NOT changed drastically though, the same ill plagues many a software. You cannot fault a user for their inability to understand all the messages a software throws.

Security Fatigue

There are Software engineers complain about “too much Security”. Most are overwhelmed by the alerts from banks to stay wary of Spoofing, Phishing, Smishing attacks. “Smishing” “Catfishing” “Doxing” have just been added to the dictionary!
The IT admin asks employees to stay away from clicking random emails because it may lead to a corporate hack. The technically savvy ask others not to install that shiny new Wallpaper app they’ve just seen – because you never know. There are a raft of new Password Apps to remember all passwords – but we still have trouble remembering that one password for that app! Most passwords are too simple, a combination of their identity (Name, Place, DoB, their Pet’s name etc) – guessable, or too weak (password, for example; or the most used and least safe password “123456 ” !

App Update Fatigue

An average user has to deal with his phone, laptop, PC, and all those devices at home. Many were spooked reading recent reports of users updating their latest TV, only to see it get bricked (Samsung/ UK). Another one said “Update your drone, or it will not fly” Thank you DJI!

Jargon Fatigue

Most school or college going kids or older smartphone users are no strangers to acronyms. A few years back kids typed away in T9 on their old Nokia without once looking at the phone! Others can converse without vowels – the SMS lingo. But, Catfishing, Smishing, rootkit, SSL, https, 2 factor authentication, IMAP, Doxing, seem like a stretch. Even for software professionals!

The average user out there wishes there were fewer jargon. After all, the promise of technology was to make our lives easier.

A Fatigued user

As a result of all these constant needless interactions, the average user flips, resulting in…
– Impulsive “Yes-to-All”
– Takes Random/ easiest decisions
– Resigned to Fate
– Stressed out, Feels out of control


Which is to say the most disappointing outcome, the whole premise of the Product/ Service developer was to let an average user like Ramesh was to make an “informed” choice, and not ending in indecision. Excess choices and forcing the user to ponder at every turn leads to an overload & Decision fatigue!

Houston, We have a Consent Problem

By now, It’s amply clear that the user is subjected to a barrage of queries everyday, all day long. Decision making or at it’s heart “CONSENT” in most of his activities, most of which have a digital interface. The user should NOT have to exercise caution, tax his brain for every single action. Rather, the focus should be to involve the user in making ONLY critical decisions during any requirement for consent. Burdening a user leads to consent fatigue.

Why should I say yes to this?Which one should I say yes to?Why am I forced to choose? Can I skip it?Why aren’t more choices available?

Microsoft acted immediately in their next version – Windows 7, removed unnecessary dialog boxes, reduced it to a third. Managed QR code is used in many apps to ease the Consent. The choice is eclectic, there’s no Silver bullet for every situation, BUT, every succeeding effort should be one to reduce errors by users & not make it a chore, while enriching the experience and the interaction joyful.

Ramesh marvels at how much things have changed over the years, but he says there’s much to be fixed, before we can say we have truly arrived.

Where we stand today & the way forward

According to a study, an average person takes 70 conscious decisions per day! Add to it sundry everyday decisions like what to eat or wear, constant flow of Emails, Text messages & noise from Social Media. An average user is overwhelmed with choices & fatigue sets in quickly for even the most determined.

Awareness of this reality of user fatigue should be on top of the mind for Product/ Service providers to effectively address the same.

‘Copy’ or the way the app communicates to the user via the GUI (Graphical User Interface) or VUI (Voice User Interface) can help users greatly. Simple, Jargon-free, non-cryptic & clear words or instructions will help for starter. Often the user is lost or unable to understand the error message or what is being asked of him, for lack of contextual information or otherwise. Investing time to clean up the UX Copy can help mitigate such issues.

While Copy is just one aspect of it, reducing Cognitive Overload, or Information overload, or improving overall user experience may need multiple levels of fine tuning throughout the lifecycle of the Product or Service.

Optimal User Experience is now the challenge that differentiates the great from the “merely good”. For an average user, he/ she does not see or appreciate the technologies or changes behind the scenes. They only see and experience the product primarily via the interface. User Experience, IS the chief differentiator.

An enriched User Experience can help deliver more engaging, personalised and more meaningful interactions, one that will endear a service for a user to stick to a long time. Every platform/ service has its own set of challenges & its own unique solution. Focussing on the user’s needs closely helps in identifying the gaps, the areas of frustration & reduce potential issues.

Build a strong & passionate UX team, involve the entire team – from Engineering, Sales & Marketing, to Customer Support. After all, great products are a result of great work from a great team!

Further Reading

Karunakar Rayker

Designer, User Experience Consultant, Technophile, Artist, Photographer. Karunakar, has more than 17 years of experience in designing and building solutions. He shares his knowledge and experience via his very active, resourceful and insightful twitter feed @krayker

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Consent Fatigue by Karunakar Rayker @krayker

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