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The impossibility of logging off

The logout button has become practically defunct.

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Image: Mengxin Li / The Verge

On Twitter, the phrase “log off” is often uttered as a contemptuous command, directed toward a perennially online person who needs to put down their phone and go for a walk. Logging off, by this logic, is not a task to be done on one’s device but a mental state to inhabit and idealize. Still, there’s a deep irony to this sentiment: a person who manages to mentally log off, whether it be for an hour or a week, might still remain technically logged in. It’s common practice for users to leave open browser tabs and apps, for devices to ambiently operate in the background, collecting data. Most people don’t spare this fact a second thought. We’re accustomed to staying logged in so that we can continue scrolling exactly where we left off. 

The interface of consumer websites and apps, in turn, has reflected this shift. People once prioritized logging in as much as logging out, but now, according to freelance UI designer Jesse Showalter, access to content is of utmost importance, even at the cost of constantly sharing our data. Logging out, by contrast, carries little value for companies or consumers.

The logout button seems to have been rendered practically defunct. I only purposefully sign out of certain accounts when I’m trying to curb my usage of a site or app (usually it’s Twitter or Amazon). Even then, that process isn’t always straightforward. A few months ago, I was using a friend’s laptop to send some emails and realized that I was prohibited from individually signing out of my Gmail account. Doing so would also log my friend out. This is a desktop-specific nuisance that Google has maintained for many years. Instead, I had to use a separate device, like a mobile phone, to revoke account access. 

The logout button seems to have been rendered practically defunct

This unexpected logout hurdle only affirmed my conspiratorial suspicion: websites and apps have a profit-bearing incentive to keep users logged in, reflected in mobile and desktop interface design. The logout button, as a result, has been consigned to the depths of the settings menu, as is the case with Discord and YouTube, or even removed as a function entirely, like on the mobile apps for Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. My theory aligns with the history of dark interface patterns quietly pushed by major tech companies. These UI decisions are made with corporate interests in mind “to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do.” Concealing the logout function by a few clicks is admittedly not as manipulative as tricking a user to agree to be tracked. The logic seemed similar, though. People are less likely to consider signing out if the option isn’t quite so front and center. Otherwise, why would there be a genre of YouTube tutorials with thousands, if not millions, of views detailing the logout process of certain apps?

I reached out to some interface designers to see if my theory held any weight, only to learn that the reality is not as nefarious as I’ve made it out to be. User behavior informs design decisions and vice versa. Since our devices are treated as extensions of our cognitive selves, people shift constantly between mobile and desktop interfaces, even simultaneously using both. These days, users expect their session data to be seamlessly transferred across devices: “This productivity handover results in people needing to stay constantly logged in,” said Tom McClean, the UX and design lead at technology consultancy Door3. The login experience, too, becomes less of a hassle, and service providers like Google or Meta can gather browsing data and habits on their users, even when they’re not using the app.

These days, users expect their session data to be seamlessly transferred across devices

This relationship is more symbiotic than antagonistic, McClean added. Most interfaces are designed to be user-friendly. Businesses benefit from customers engaging with their product. A positive interface experience increases the amount of time spent on an app, which translates to increased advertising revenue. In some cases, a user doesn’t necessarily need to make an account to be “logged in.” They simply have to permit a site to create a session cookie (usually by checking a box) that gathers data on the user’s activity. These cookies are often not cleared when the browser is closed, so the person can technically stay logged in for an extended period of time. Few users manually clear out their cache. In the end, convenience is always something the user pays for, said Sara Vienna, vice president of design at the interface design firm MetaLab, in the form of money or personal data for targeted ads. 

Most sites aren’t purposefully sending users on a wild goose chase before logging out.

The sign-out process might seem more confusing or challenging because users are less familiar with contemporary interface designs, Vienna said, which have only grown more customized and sophisticated in the past decade. Designers are not as often relying on “cookie-cutter, bootstrap-like interfaces,” Vienna added. “When people pull from familiar design patterns, there’s a benefit from a UX perspective because familiarity means people know where to find things.”

Developers simply don’t think about logging out as much, unless they’re building platforms that contain sensitive user information. With healthcare or financial services apps, for example, logging out is an automated, built-in feature. User sessions are programmed to quickly time out or expire for privacy. Or in the case of news sites with paywalls, like The New Yorker and New York Magazine, users complain about being routinely booted out. 

Vienna imagines an inevitable future where users will be more thoughtful about their data, demanding more control over how it’s used and collected. The side effect of that? An internet that allows for more states than the binary of being logged in or logged out. “When we think of states, it’s the way the interface should change and evolve depending on the user’s location, time, actions, and anticipated needs,” Vienna said. 

Until then, when we take a break from our screens, leave our homes and go for a walk, to go touch grass even, our devices at home will remain logged in, with the promise of a seamless and continuous experience for whenever we might return — the expectation that, no matter what, we always will.

Correction May 24th, 4:00PM ET: An earlier version of this article misspelled Tom McClean’s name and misstated his job title. The piece has been updated.