“Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” [Wikipedia]

The User eXperience (UX) of a piece of software, equipment, or process has significant impact on the user’s sense of agency. This affects the psychological wellbeing of the user as their interact with the design. Great agency can induce a greater sense of efficacy (the confidence that one can achieve desired results.)

A design that forces users to only interact in one way, its way, can feel rigid and unfriendly. The user is directed and their agency limited. When a piece of design is rigid and poorly thought-through, it can encourage the user to unthinkingly suffer the interaction, and over the longer term can inculcate helplessness.

This is why the UX design of tools (such as a drawing program, a wordprocessor, an electric drill, a microwave oven, and pottery classes) generally aims to enable the user as much freedom to do things in different way as possible. There are still directive parts within the overall design, of course. But the general aim is to maximise the user’s agency.

On the flip side, some UX designs must be necessarily rigid. Online financial transactions, the emergency stop button on escalators, the sterilisation process in an operating theatre are good examples of limiting agency. For good reason. Limiting agency engenders trust and security in these circumstances.

The most appropriate UX design approach comes back down to the fundamental of understanding the user’s context and the nature of the tasks involved.