VPNs for All

I don’t know a lot about security but I do know that when I use public wi-fi—whether on my phone, tablet or laptop—I should be protecting my traffic with a virtual private network.

For those unfamiliar with VPNs, the concept is basically that you use a simple piece of software to open up a private channel to a trusted server, through which you route all your browsing, email, uploading and downloading, etc. A good VPN keeps your identity private, your data secure and helps mask your location, even from the provider of the Internet connection you’re using to connect to the VPN. Those benefits are highly desirable in today’s privacy-scarce world, and by and large, VPNs are not technically demanding to use. Still, the whole concept of consumer-ready virtual private networks is sorely lacking when it comes to good user experience design.

Most VPN providers provide dedicated client apps or utilities through which you use their service. All you need to do is click a button, wait a moment for the software to connect with the VPN server, and then go about your business. For the most part, this is a straightforward, reliable process, but of course since you’re introducing another factor into your technical setup, it does on occasion present hiccups—VPNs can occasionally make it difficult to connect to certain servers, or certain sites or services can get tripped up when routing through VPNs. All in all though, the benefit of added security and peace of mind is well worth the minor hassle of the occasional problems that VPNs introduce.

My provider of choice is a company called IVPN, whose service is well-reviewed and reasonably performant (it worked great for me in Europe and Japan last month). But there are actually exactly one million, eight-hundred and seventy-three other VPN providers out there that you can choose from, so it’s really a buyer’s market.

In fact, relatively little distinguishes one VPN provider from another in terms of features. Speed, reliability, availability, and trustworthiness are generally the make-or-break factors to consider when deciding from among competitors. The software they provide is, in my experience, more or less commoditized; aside from branding and a few low-level features, they basically all do the same thing, with roughly the same level of design quality. Here’s the main IVPN’s iPhone app:

iPhone App for IVPN

There’s a settings screen too, but trust me, there’s not much more to this app than this.

So there’s certainly room for an ambitious and design-savvy VPN provider to create a best-of-class software experience for their service. The current crop leaves a lot to be desired in terms of aesthetics, interaction, and overall thoughtfulness in the user experience. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort to raise the game by simply rendering the standard features that one finds in every company’s VPN apps at a higher level of fit and finish.

Moreover, there’s also an opportunity for VPN software to make the very value they’re providing more understandable and transparent. I have yet to come across one that shows me my usage and performance statistics (elegantly), that highlights and explains any connection problems I’ve experienced, that automatically suggests switching to faster servers when appropriate. VPN software could also highlight how they’re making my data safer too, perhaps by highlighting the route that it takes to get to their servers, or mapping the potential dangers of the public networks that I join. Even though this software is not hard to use, it still rests on an assumption that consumers understand why they’re using it and how it works, which seem like areas that are ripe for friendlier, more plainly articulated explanation.

But I think there’s actually a bigger opening for VPNs—and security—as a concept, here. With so many providers to choose from, a consumer new to this concept is very likely to be overwhelmed by the choice. When I first investigated the idea of using a VPN service for myself, I felt incapable of evaluating the fitness of a given provider for my needs. None of the brand names were familiar, and my lack of in-depth understanding of the particulars of security protocols meant that each company’s technically-oriented selling points were largely lost on me.

What I found myself wondering was: why doesn’t a simpler, more consumer-oriented option exist? It’s clear that most people could benefit from using a VPN, but VPN providers seem to market almost exclusively to technologically-savvy users. That’s a situation where a good product can do wonders—particularly by abstracting the inherent technical complexity.

A single company could try to tackle this, but it might be more interesting—and effective—to abstract the entire category. What if there was an extremely well-designed VPN app that didn’t belong to any one provider, but that would serve as a gateway to the very best ones? New customers could download this “meta VPN” app from their app store, fire it up and then browse a gallery of vetted, high quality VPN companies. This listing could include user ratings and reviews, and perhaps be ranked by performance relative to the user’s current location. Having this sort of curation would impart to novice users the lay of the land when entering this market for the first time, and of course it could also let them subscribe and connect to a provider—all from right from within the same app, so it would be easy to try out many different providers without having to download software for each.

Even better, what if, instead of forcing you to choose one company, this meta VPN allowed you to essentially use all of these preferred providers via a subscription that effectively blends them all together? Imagine that if, by paying one monthly fee, your VPN traffic would, each time you connect, be routed through a different provider’s closest/fastest server. This would not only greatly increase the number of available options you have as you travel, but it would also randomly distribute your traffic and data among many independent parties. The huge potential benefit there is that it would give you even more security and anonymity, making it much more difficult for any government body to ever be able to successfully subpoena your records in any coherent form.

As I said at the top, my knowledge of this category is thin at best, so these ideas may be impractical. But in a way that level of naïveté seems like something that this category needs. Security and privacy are only becoming more vital and essential, and demystifying VPN technology on a large scale—for the benefit a large swath of consumers with little knowledge of it—could really catalyze this market. It would also be a valuable design contribution to the public, because it seems clear that design is what’s needed to level up this technology. And with design having been complicit in so many detrimental societal changes lately, that would be welcome.