2018 was a year in which design failed us. Sure, there were some bright spots, but in so many cases, software and hardware design seemed to miss the mark. We learned more and more about how tech companies are using design to deceive us, inciting us to share more data, buy more things, and spend more time with their products–but the failures of tech companies paled in comparison to the poor ballot and voting machine design of the midterm elections.
These are some of the biggest design failures of a year that offered plenty of them.
Dongles and cracked screens
Though Apple released its most advanced phone ever this year, other aspects of its hardware design left much to be desired. Take the dreaded $9 dongle you need to use any of the company’s new phones with non-Bluetooth headphones. This year, this bit of wire–which users complain breaks easily and is hard to keep track of–became Best Buy’s bestselling Apple product.
The fact that it’s such a popular product suggests people are constantly having to replace it, and illustrates how Apple’s 2016 choice to remove the iPhone headphone jack is still a problem for many iPhone owners (it’s the reason why I still have an iPhone 6S, and I’m trying to hang onto the phone for as long as I can). Apple’s design decision that has reverberated across the industry, since most other smartphone makers followed suit–as Fast Company‘s Mark Wilson recently lamented, the Pixel 3 lacks a headphone jack, too.
Another reason many iPhone owners lamented the company’s design this year? The continuing rash of cracked screens. While other phone makers like Samsung have devoted resources to preventing people’s phone screens from shattering when they’re dropped, 10 years after the iPhone was released, Apple still can’t get its act together on this issue.
While Apple may be pushing forward in other aspects of its design, both of these issue are illustrative of a lack of concern for ease of use and durability. 2018 was the year they became truly unacceptable.
A year of dark patterns
Annoying hardware issues are one thing, but the many ways tech companies deceived users through design this year are quite another.
Google ended Chrome users’ ability to use the company’s browser without being automatically logged into a Google account. Most of us had no idea about this crucial change, until cryptographer and Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green sounded the alarm, pointing out how the subtle dark pattern was eroding a barrier that allowed you to keep your Google services and your browsing activity separate. Green wrote about how the change convinced him to leave Chrome for good.
Even more egregious? T-Mobile used a fake ringtone to make it sound like customer calls were connecting, even when they weren’t. The dark pattern was supposed to hide the company’s failures from users, but the FCC found out and fined the company $40 million for the deceptive practice. The ruling is a bright spot, since it signals that dark patterns may one day be subject to regulatory oversight, similar to how other consumer products have to meet safety requirements.
On a less serious note, Amazon’s Alexa startled some users this year when she started creepily laughing at random. Amazon soon fixed the problem, but this news story also raises questions about how the software we’re inviting into our homes should be designed. Why was Alexa programmed to laugh in the first place? Alexa is a robot that doesn’t understand humor. It’s a subtle design fail, but an important one, pointing out the gap between these assistants’ true abilities and what their corporate creators would have us believe: that they’re our friends.
Bad design that will reverberate for decades
This was a year full of comically bad design from the Trump Administration: Melania Trump debuted a hilariously childish logo she designed herself for her “Be Best” initiative; Trump’s re-election campaign published a series of laughably bad logos for the never-going-to-happen Space Force; the administration released a commemorative coin for the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un that seemed more like an endorsement of North Korea and its dictator.
Less funny? The way the 2018 midterm elections highlighted just how terribly designed our electoral system is–and not just in terms of policy.
In Broward County, Florida, 3.7% of voters accidentally didn’t vote for the hotly contested Senate race even though they filled out every other race. This “undervoting” occurred in this county three times as much as every other county in the state. One theory for why this happened? Poor ballot design. On the far left column of this county’s ballot, there was a long list of instructions on how to vote, with the senate race right underneath it at the bottom of the page. The rest of the races start at the beginning of the next column. There’s a good chance that people likely glossed right over the Senate race box, just as they glossed over the instructions. Because the race was so close, with a margin of only 15,037 votes, it’s possible that this design fail changed the outcome of the race–and the makeup of the Senate for the next two years.
Poor voting design also showed up in Texas, where about 5 million voters in 82 counties use Hart eSlate voting machines. Voters reported that the machine switched their votes for Senate when they used a “straight ballot” option to vote all-Democratic. Texas’s Secretary of State, who oversees elections, blamed voters for the changes, saying that they just didn’t know how to use the machines. Either way, this is a design fail. People not understanding how technology works isn’t their fault. It’s the result of poor design, something that we can’t afford in our democracy.
Unfortunately, bad design can still be very effective design. Just look at the way some tech companies intentionally deceive their users with unclear or confusing software. It’s a chilling reminder that just because these designs are failures for users doesn’t mean they aren’t serving their intended purpose.