User Control

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What is User Control?

User control in user experience design refers to the principle where designers let users have autonomy and independence in their interaction with a digital interface through such features as undo buttons. This user-centric design approach ensures that the user has the freedom to navigate, interact and make choices within a system or interface according to their preferences and needs. 

Image of a keyboard with a cone on top of the Enter key.

While users should have a great degree of freedom and control—including to press Enter—how much control to give users, and how, is a significant design consideration.

© Fernando Arcos, Fair Use

Why is User Control Vital in UX Design?

User control is an integral component of user experience (UX) design, primarily due to its potential to enhance user autonomy in good designs. A high degree of user control translates to a user interface (UI) that adapts to the user's preferences and needs and helps deliver a good user experience.  

When designers provide such control to users, they give them essential affordances, comforts and adaptability—rather than dictate a rigid pathway for users. This adaptability gives users the freedom to interact with the interface in a way that suits their unique personal style or cognitive process. It also helps to alleviate pain points while a user interacts with a digital product. Consequently, the overall user experience is significantly better and more in line with user-centered design. The user gains a sense of empowerment and satisfaction while they encounter the product brand.  

User Control and Jakob Nielsen's Usability Heuristic

The concept of "User Control and Freedom" is a key heuristic which usability expert Jakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen-Norman Group, proposed. It is third in his list of ten Usability Heuristics. Heuristics are rule-of-thumb strategies that derive from previous experiences with similar problems. “User Control and Freedom” underscores how important it is to provide users with the flexibility to navigate the system freely and reverse their actions when necessary.  

According to Nielsen, designers should create interfaces so that users can undo and redo actions without any hindrance. This heuristic advocates for product designers to provide "emergency exits" for users to effortlessly leave any unintended state without going through an extended process. When designers adhere to this heuristic among their design principles, they can improve system usability and user satisfaction. 

An image of two mobile phone screens showing the Wayfair app.

When users on Wayfair.com click on the Reviews link, a drawer opens and expands to the full screen. Both the site’s and browser’s Back buttons return users to the initial product overview page, as users expect. They can also swipe from left to right to close the drawer.

© Maria Rosala, Fair Use

User Control: A Catalyst for User Satisfaction and Trust

User control also plays a critical role as it helps to foster user satisfaction and trust. A digital interface that allows users to navigate freely and reverse actions imparts a sense of reliability and assurance. Users feel confident to use the product and are more likely to return, which leads to higher user retention rates. Moreover, user trust also amplifies the perception of the product's credibility. This fact can greatly impact the product's market reputation and longevity overall.  

User Control: An Antidote to User Anxiety

User anxiety is a common issue in UX design. It often stems from the fear of making irreversible errors. When designers offer a high degree of user control, they can mitigate this anxiety. The knowledge that they can easily reverse actions and navigate freely within the interface alleviates users' apprehensions and encourages them to explore the product without fear. 

An image of a user's Medium screen.

Medium’s revision history lets users check their article’s progress.

© Harsh Gorasia, Fair Use

What are the Challenges to Design for User Control?

To design for optimal user control can lead to more difficult design decisions throughout iterations in the design and development process. The primary concerns for designers are how they:   

1. Balance User Control and Simplicity

One of the main challenges that designers face when they try to incorporate user control is to maintain simplicity. While users appreciate having control, they also value simplicity and ease of use. For example, if software designers offer too many options or flexibility in an app, it can overwhelm users and lead to decision paralysis. Therefore, the challenge is for designers to strike a balance between how they provide user control and maintain a minimalist and intuitive interface.  

2. Prevent Unintended Consequences

While it's essential to allow users to undo actions, designers must also ensure that these functionalities don't compromise the integrity of the system or lead to data loss. This requires careful planning throughout the UX design process and robust system design as the product develops for the target audience.  

3. Adhere to Standard Conventions

To design for user control also means to follow standard conventions. Users often have ingrained expectations about how certain functions should work. These notions come from their previous experiences with other products. If designers deviate from these conventions, they can confuse users and negatively impact usability. Therefore, while designers innovate and add unique elements, they must ensure they keep to established norms and design patterns. 

Watch our video on UI design patterns to understand more about what users can expect to encounter in mobile apps, website designs and more:   

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What are Examples of User Control in UX Design?

Various elements in UX design exemplify user control. Here are important elements that highlight how designers can effectively incorporate user control into their products.  

1. Undo and Redo Options

Most digital interfaces provide undo and redo options. This feature is a prime example of user control. It lets users easily reverse their actions. For instance, text editors often have undo and redo buttons that permit users to revert their changes or reapply them, respectively.  

A user on this Trustpilot page can select Undo and Redo to go back to a previous mode or return to the latest mode of text.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

 2. Customizable Settings

Customizable settings are another important aspect of user control in UX design. Many applications and websites allow users to tailor the interface according to their preferences. Users can modify display settings, choose themes or rearrange the layout. They therefore can enjoy significant control over the interface.  

An image of two mobile phones, one with light mode on its screen and one with dark mode.

Users can control the light intensity on their smartphone screens to suit their tastes or the time of the day.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

3. Navigation Freedom

Navigation freedom is a critical aspect of user control. A well-designed interface should allow users to navigate freely across different sections. Consistent and visible navigation menus, breadcrumb trails and back buttons are common elements that provide navigation freedom.

A partial screenshot from the top-left-hand section of a Google results web page.

This partial screenshot (from the top left of a Google.com results web page) shows Google Chrome’s back button—including the functionality to hold and see the history.

© Google, Fair Use

4. Confirmation Dialogs

Confirmation dialogs are common in interfaces where users perform significant or irreversible actions. Before users execute such actions, the system prompts a confirmation dialog that asks the user to verify their intent. This feature ensures users have the final say in significant system changes, and so enhances user control.  

Note how this dialog box can grab the user's attention, also featuring a red button to proceed.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

5. Input Controls

Text fields, checkboxes, dropdown menus and sliders provide users with control over input and interaction. These features allow them to input information or make selections as they move through their user flow to achieve what they want.  

An image of a screen featuring aspects of how users can enjoy input control.

Users can exert control in several ways, such as in text fields and through buttons.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

6. Accessibility Features

Accessibility features, such as screen reader compatibility, keyboard navigation and adjustable font sizes, help ensure that users with disabilities have equal control and access to the interface. Features that support accessibility are mandatory in many jurisdictions. 

This video explains the need for any design team to design with accessibility in mind: 

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What are Risks and Considerations of User Control?

While design for user control is generally beneficial, it's not without its risks. Among the points to bear in mind is that if designers provide too much or too little control, it can lead to various issues.  

1. Overwhelm for Users

To provide too much control can overwhelm users. When users face too many options or settings, it will raise their cognitive load and they may feel confused and anxious. This can lead to decision paralysis and a poor user experience.  

2. Compromise of Functionality

On the other hand, if designers provide too little control, it can make users feel constrained and frustrated. However, to give users full control over all aspects of the system could jeopardize the product's primary functionality. Users might inadvertently alter critical settings or perform actions that harm the system's functioning. This is a vital balance to strike in human-centered design systems. 

3. Violation of Standard Conventions

When they try to provide unique user control features, designers might feel tempted to deviate from standard conventions and effective design patterns. This can confuse users and lead to usability issues. Designers might inconsistently place controls, labels or more and frustrate their users as they try to proceed in flow through their tasks. 

4. Poor Discoverability

Unless designers mark available control options clearly with obvious cues or instructions, users may not be aware of all these options or how to access them. 

Watch as Product Design Lead at Netflix, Niwal Sheikh explains Netflix’s application of discoverability for users: 

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5. Technical Limitations

Technical limitations or platform restrictions may restrict user control. If designers don’t work closely enough with developers, the latter may not implement the desired user control features effectively.  

What are Best Practices to Design for User Control?

To design for optimal user control means to follow certain best practices. These practices can guide designers to create interfaces that effectively empower users, prevent errors and more.  

1. Understand User Needs and Preferences

The first step is to understand the users themselves. Designers should conduct thorough UX research to understand users' needs, preferences and expectations. This knowledge can guide decisions regarding the degree and form of control to provide.  

 UX Strategist and Consultant, William Hudson explains the need to conduct solid user research in this video: 

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2. Prioritize Essential Controls

Designers should focus on providing controls that are essential for users to accomplish their tasks and meet their goals. Avoid overwhelming users with unnecessary or complex controls. Undo and redo options are fundamental to user control. These options give users the confidence to perform actions, as they know they can easily reverse their choices if they need to.   

3. Use Familiar UI Patterns and UI Elements

Designers who use familiar UI patterns and visual design elements can enhance user control which makes the interface more intuitive. These include buttons, sliders, checkboxes, dropdown menus and other elements that users are accustomed to. Consistency in the use of these elements across different sections of the interface can also enhance user control. When users find consistent controls, cues and more, they can quickly understand their purpose and how to utilize them effectively.  

Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Alan Dix explains critical considerations when designers create screens for target users: 

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4. Provide Clear Navigation

Clear and intuitive navigation is crucial for user control. Users should be able to easily navigate through the interface, find what they're looking for and know where they are at any time. Designers can achieve this through clear labels, consistent layout and visible navigation menus. Again, established conventions are crucial keys to provide user control in this way. Designers should follow common UI patterns to help reduce the learning curve and make the interface more intuitive.  

5. Give Contextual Guidance

Contextual guidance is vital for users to understand how to navigate and interact with the interface effectively. It’s good to provide tooltips, onboarding tutorials or contextual help that can assist users to make informed decisions and utilize the available controls. Apart from assisting users properly, when designers provide good contextual guidance, they show they have empathy with their users. 

Watch this video to understand the importance of empathy in design: 

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6. Provide Clear Feedback, Validations and Error Handling

It’s vital to provide real-time, clear feedback in user control. Whether it's a success message after a form submission or a loading indicator during a data fetch, timely and clear feedback keeps users informed about the system status. Input validations and error handling mechanisms are essential to prevent user errors. Designers can guide users towards correct actions and prevent mistakes by validating inputs and providing clear error messages.  

7. Allow Customization

To permit customization is an effective way to enhance user control. Users should have the option to customize the interface based on their preferences. It can significantly improve the user experience and give users a sense of ownership over the interface.  

An image of a mobile phone screen, featuring many options for a user to select from.

Users should be able to customize many aspects of their experience with a brand.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

8. Test and Iterate

Regularly test the interface with users in the real world to gather feedback and identify areas for improvement. From usability testing, iterate and refine the design based on user insights to optimize user control. Designers who conduct user testing well can fine-tune such vital areas as information architecture and visual elements. These improvements can afford their users a heightened sense of control in the next iteration. 

9. Consider Accessibility

Always design with accessibility in mind. It is often a legal requirement to follow accessibility guidelines and provide options for users with disabilities. For example, users with low vision abilities will likely not be able to appreciate visual or graphic design features, and so their screen readers will need to inform them about a web page’s content. To give users of all ability levels control and access to the interface is a sign of empowerment that brings many benefits, both for users of all abilities and for the brand itself.  

10. Balance User Control and System Control

It’s important to strike the right balance between user control and system control. This can be a challenge. On the one hand, it's vital to provide users the freedom to interact and make choices. However, the system also needs to guide and assist users through automation, defaults and error prevention. When designers balance these two aspects well, they address a crucial need as users can enjoy a smooth and effective user experience.  

Remember, a great UX design empowers users through thoughtful products or services. It gives them control and freedom while balancing it with system control in an interface that is responsive to user input, provides meaningful feedback, and allows for error recovery and undo actions. To design best for users’ control is to create an environment where users feel in control both of their actions and of the resulting outcomes.    

Overall, users should have the liberty to make choices within a digital product, and have the freedom to navigate and explore without feeling restricted or trapped. Designers afford user control best when they create interfaces that are responsive, intuitive and adaptable to individual user preferences. The digital products that meet users’ needs and expectations in seamless, enjoyable experiences where users feel they’re in the driver’s seat are ones that can enjoy greater chances of soaring high in the marketplace.  

Learn More about User Control

Take our Human-Computer Interaction: The Foundations of UX Design course. 

Take our Master Class How to Design with the Mind in Mind with Jeff Johnson, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of San Francisco. 

Find further insights in Heuristic Evaluation — H3: User control and freedom by Techskill Brew

Consult All about usability heuristic #3: User control and freedom by Radhika Arora for additional helpful insights. 

Read Boost Your UX With These Successful Interaction Design Principles by Miklos Philips for more details. 

Go to A Guide To The Ten Usability Heuristics by Kobiruo Otebele for further information and insights. 

Read User Control and Freedom (Usability Heuristic #3) by Maria Rosala for more examples and important in-depth information. 

Questions related to User Control

In what ways can too much user control negatively impact the UX?

To offer users too much control can confuse them and degrade the user experience (UX). When users face too many choices or complex navigation paths, they can feel overwhelmed, a phenomenon known as choice overload. This can lead to decision fatigue, reducing their ability to make decisions and possibly causing them to abandon the task altogether. Additionally, excessive customization options might compel users to spend too much time setting up an interface instead of using it productively, leading to a decrease in overall satisfaction. 

Moreover, too much control can detract from the consistency of the user experience across different parts of an application or website. Users might struggle to remember their custom settings, leading to frustration when they cannot replicate the same environment on different devices or when returning to the application after some time. 

To illustrate, imagine a productivity app that offers endless customization for its interface, task management, and notifications. Users might initially enjoy the freedom but soon find themselves spending more time tweaking settings than completing tasks, which can significantly hinder productivity and satisfaction. 

Take our User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide course.

What are common features that enhance user control in digital interfaces?

Common features that enhance user control in digital interfaces include undo and redo buttons, customizable settings and clear navigation paths. Undo and redo buttons allow users to easily correct mistakes. They provide a safety net that encourages exploration without fear of permanent errors. Customizable settings let users tailor the interface to their preferences, improving comfort and efficiency. This could range from changing themes to adjusting notification frequencies, giving users the power to shape their experience. 

Clear navigation paths, through well-organized menus and intuitive layout designs, guide users smoothly from one task to another. This organization helps users understand their current location within the application and how to reach their desired destination without confusion. For instance, breadcrumb navigation shows the path taken and offers a quick way back to previous steps. 

Feedback mechanisms, such as confirmation dialogs and progress indicators, also play a crucial role. They inform users about the system's state and the outcome of their actions, ensuring users feel in control of the process. 

Take our User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide course. 

How does user control differ in mobile vs. desktop UX design?

User control in mobile versus desktop UX design differs mainly due to screen size, interaction methods, and context of use. Mobile devices have smaller screens, which limits the amount of information and control options that can display at once. Designers must prioritize content and features, often simplifying interfaces and offering more guided experiences. 

In contrast, desktop environments provide larger screens and the precise control of a mouse and keyboard. This allows for more complex interactions, multiple windows and extensive menus. Users can manage more tasks simultaneously and customize their experience in detail. 

Interaction methods also vary. Mobile UX relies heavily on touch gestures—like swiping, tapping and pinching—making direct manipulation of on-screen elements essential. Desktop UX, however, utilizes pointers and keyboard shortcuts, offering fine control for complex tasks. 

Lastly, context of use influences user control. Mobile devices support users on the go, necessitating quick, straightforward interactions. Desktops, suited for longer, focused sessions, can afford more complex and feature-rich interfaces. 

Take our Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide course. 

How does user control contribute to the accessibility of a digital product?

User control significantly enhances the accessibility of a digital product by allowing individuals to interact with technology in ways that best suit their needs and preferences. Features such as adjustable font sizes, contrast settings and voice commands enable users with visual impairments to perceive content more easily. Customizable keyboard shortcuts and navigation aids cater to those with motor difficulties, and facilitate easier movement through digital environments. 

Moreover, the ability to modify the speed of video content or the option for text-to-speech functionalities assists users with learning disabilities in processing information at their own pace. These control options ensure that digital products are more inclusive, supporting a wider range of physical and cognitive abilities. 

In essence, user control empowers individuals by providing them with the tools to tailor their digital experiences. This not only improves usability for people with disabilities but also enhances the overall user experience, making digital environments more welcoming and accessible to everyone. 

Understand more about accessibility and inclusive design. This video explains the importance of design for accessibility: 

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What are some examples of user control features that improve usability?

User control features that improve usability include customizable settings, feedback mechanisms and adaptive interfaces. Customizable settings allow users to adjust the layout, colors and font sizes to match their preferences, making digital products more comfortable to use. Feedback mechanisms, such as visual cues and sounds, inform users about their actions' outcomes, and help them understand the system's response and feel in control. 

Adaptive interfaces automatically adjust based on user behavior or environmental conditions. For example, a reading app might switch to a dark mode in low light conditions. This adaptation enhances usability by catering to the user's current context or needs. 

Furthermore, features like voice commands and gesture controls provide alternative interaction methods, accommodating diverse user capabilities and preferences. These features enable users to interact with technology in ways that feel natural and efficient, thereby improving the overall user experience. 

Watch this video to understand more about usability: 

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Take our User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide course. 

What types of feedback mechanisms enhance user control?

Feedback mechanisms that enhance user control include visual cues, auditory signals, haptic feedback and progress indicators. Visual cues, such as highlights or animations, direct users' attention to changes or important features, helping them understand their interactions' effects. Auditory signals, like beeps or chimes, provide immediate feedback on actions, and confirm that the system has received the user's input. 

Haptic feedback, or vibrations, offer a tactile response to touch interactions, making the digital experience more tangible. For instance, when a user presses a button on a touchscreen, a slight vibration can simulate the feeling of pressing a physical button, confirming the action without looking. 

Progress indicators, such as loading bars or spinning icons, inform users about the status of their requests or the loading time, reducing uncertainty and frustration during wait times. These indicators help users understand that the system is working on their command, preventing repeated inputs or abandonment. 

Professor Alan Dix explains touch and haptics in user interfaces: 

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How can UX designers overcome obstacles to user control in complex systems?

UX designers can overcome obstacles to user control in complex systems by simplifying interfaces, offering personalized options and providing clear guidance. Simplifying interfaces involves breaking down complex processes into smaller, manageable steps. This approach reduces cognitive load and helps users understand how to navigate the system effectively. 

When designers offer personalized options, they allow users to customize their experience according to their preferences and needs. For example, to allow users to configure dashboard widgets or notification settings can make complex systems more approachable and user-friendly. 

To provide clear guidance through tooltips, tutorials and contextual help can help users to understand how to use complex features. Well-designed guidance offers support without overwhelming users, and enables them to learn at their own pace and become proficient with the system. 

Additionally, to employ progressive disclosure techniques—revealing information and options as needed—prevents information overload and focuses the user's attention on the task at hand. This method ensures that the complexities of the system do not overwhelm users. 

Watch as Design Director at Societe Generale, Morgane Peng explains how to balance simplicity and complexity: 

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What are the common challenges in implementing user control in UX design?

To implement user control in UX design presents common challenges. These include how to balance user freedom with a clear, guided experience, ensure accessibility for all users, and maintain a clean and intuitive interface. One aspect of how to balance user freedom means to give users the power to customize and control their experience without overwhelming them with too many choices or complex options that might confuse or frustrate them. 

To ensure accessibility is another challenge, as designers must consider diverse user needs, including the needs of users with disabilities. Features that enhance user control for some might complicate the experience for others. This consideration necessitates thoughtful design choices to accommodate a wide range of abilities and preferences. 

To maintain a clean and intuitive interface while providing user control options requires careful planning. Designers must integrate these features seamlessly without cluttering the interface or detracting from the core content and functionality. This often means they have to find innovative ways to present customization options without overwhelming the user. 

Take our Master Class Accessible and Inclusive Design Patterns with Vitaly Friedman, Senior UX Consultant, European Parliament, and Creative Lead, Smashing Magazine. 

How should one evaluate user control during usability testing?

To evaluate user control during usability testing, one should observe how easily users navigate the interface and customize their experience. Begin by setting specific tasks that require interaction with control features. These include to adjust settings, use undo and redo functions, or customize layout preferences. Monitor how users approach these tasks, noting any confusion or frustration. 

Pay close attention to feedback, both verbal and non-verbal. Users often express difficulties or satisfaction through comments and body language. This feedback can highlight areas where user control is either empowering or overwhelming. 

Quantify success rates, time to completion and error rates for tasks that involve user control features. High success rates and low error rates indicate effective user control, while long completion times might suggest complexity or usability issues. 

After testing, ask users directly about their experience with control features. Surveys or interviews can provide insights into how users perceive their level of control and whether they found the customization options useful or burdensome. 

Take our Master Class How to Get Started with Usability Testing with Cory Lebson, Principal and Owner of Lebsontech LLC. 

What are the ethical considerations of user control in UX design?

In UX design, ethical considerations of user control center on how designers respect user autonomy, ensure privacy and avoid manipulation. Designers must balance how they provide enough control to empower users while not overwhelming them with too many choices. Too much complexity can lead to frustration or decision paralysis, and undermine the user's autonomy and satisfaction. 

Privacy is a critical ethical concern. Users should control their personal information, and decide what to share and with whom. Designers must ensure that privacy settings are clear, accessible and allow users to opt-out easily from data collection or sharing. 

To avoid manipulation is another important aspect. Features to enhance user control should not trick users into making decisions against their interests. Dark patterns, such as pre-selected consent boxes or misleading navigation, exploit user control for business gains, and raise ethical issues. 

Take our Master Class Accessible and Inclusive Design Patterns with Vitaly Friedman, Senior UX Consultant, European Parliament, and Creative Lead, Smashing Magazine. 

What are some highly cited scientific articles on the subject of user control?
  1. Jannach, D., Naveed, S., & Jugovac, M. (2017). User Control in Recommender Systems: Overview and Interaction Challenges. In D. Bridge & H. Stuckenschmidt (Eds.), E-Commerce and Web Technologies (pp. 21-33). Springer International Publishing.  

This publication provides an overview of the importance of user control in recommender systems and the associated interaction challenges. The authors argue that while recommender systems can be valuable tools for helping users find relevant items, they can also make incorrect assumptions about user preferences. To address this, the paper reviews different approaches from the research literature that aim to put users in active control of the recommendations, such as allowing them to specify preferences explicitly or provide feedback on the recommendations. The paper highlights the design challenges involved in implementing effective user control mechanisms and presents the results of a survey-based study that gathered user feedback on implemented control features. This work is influential in demonstrating the need for user control in recommender systems and outlining the key considerations for designing such control mechanisms, which is highly relevant to the fields of human-computer interaction and user experience design. 

 

  1. Peissner, M., & Edlin-White, R. (2013). User Control in Adaptive User Interfaces for Accessibility. In P. Kotzé, G. Marsden, G. Lindgaard, J. Wesson, & M. Winckler (Eds.), Human-Computer Interaction – INTERACT 2013 (pp. 744-751). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.  

This publication explores the importance of user control in adaptive user interfaces, particularly in the context of accessibility. The authors argue that while adaptive interfaces offer great potential for improving accessibility, the adaptations can also cause usability problems, such as disorientation and a loss of user control. To address this, the paper presents an experimental user study that investigates the effectiveness and acceptability of different adaptation patterns designed to increase the transparency and controllability of runtime adaptations. The results suggest that these patterns help users optimize the subjective utility of the system's adaptation behavior and that user preference and acceptance of the patterns depend on the specific cost-benefit conditions. This work is influential as it demonstrates the need for user control mechanisms in adaptive interfaces and provides empirical insights into the design of such mechanisms, which is highly relevant to the fields of human-computer interaction and user experience design, especially for accessible systems. 

Literature on User Control

Here’s the entire UX literature on User Control by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about User Control

Take a deep dive into User Control with our course Human-Computer Interaction: The Foundations of UX Design .

Interactions between products/designs/services on one side and humans on the other should be as intuitive as conversations between two humans—and yet many products and services fail to achieve this. So, what do you need to know so as to create an intuitive user experience? Human psychology? Human-centered design? Specialized design processes? The answer is, of course, all of the above, and this course will cover them all.

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This in-depth, video-based course is created with the amazing Alan Dix, the co-author of the internationally best-selling textbook Human-Computer Interaction and a superstar in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan is currently professor and Director of the Computational Foundry at Swansea University.    

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