User Error

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Today, I got a sense of what it's like to be a user. Not of drugs, but of technology. As in, the one to whom the phrase "user error" is attributed.

I never liked that phrase. To me, it feels like blame on the user end, and as Donald Norman can tell you, often user error is as a result of bad design. In my case, I had followed all instructions, as had the staff assistant who was assisting me. We checked, we double-checked, and because we had problems before, we even triple-checked. This time, when things didn't work as they were supposed to (for the fourth time, I might add), I sent a note off to the powers-that-be explaining that we were done using their system and would be looking for something else.

Today, I spoke with a very nice person who was clearly not trying to make me feel bad, but who said that it appeared that we hadn't done thus-and-so in order to make the system work. I double-checked with the staff assistant, who outlined doing exactly what we had been instructed to do. While the tech on the phone was clear that it was "possible" there was a glitch, we are also clear that none of us is absolutely 100% certain that we clicked the one button. So in the end, I'm left thinking that the help desk is probably thinking (as would I, were I sitting where they are) that we were the ones who erred.

But here's the thing: I'm not a novice computer user. I can write code, install a CMS, and even mess with PHP if a gun were held to my head. But I'm left feeling incompetent. And why is that? Because, as Norman tells us, technology is the one area where the user blames his/herself even when design is bad.

Now, I don't think the instructions (written by this group and the nice person who helped me) are necessarily bad. However, I do think the system is highly unusable, from a usability perspective. So why do I feel like an idiot anyway?

3 Comments

Vince Verbeke Author Profile Page said:

Becuase your "human" and this is a good thing.

Sarah Cook said:

Years ago I once received an error message of "User Error (what else?)" while trying to enroll in a web-based training course at Penn State. It doesn't get much more arrogant and condescending than that.

I think it's important and perhaps essential for technologically sophisticated people to feel like end users--and to remember that feeling. It's one of the few ways to overcome the curse of knowledge.

Certainly many people do misunderstand complex systems (and even simple ones), and that results in lots of work for the customer-support staff. On the other hand, you come across a whiff of arrogance now and then, like the coder working on a business system who said, "If [the end-users] can't understand how to use these entries, they don't deserve them."

Try this thought experiment: imagine telling me the model, make, and year of your car.

Got it?

I'll bet you have in mind something equivalent to "2002 Honda Civic." In other words, the year, make, and model--the reverse of the prompt I gave.

I spent way more time than I like to remember trying to convince a programmer that year/make/model is the default model that ordinary people use for their cars. He'd used model/make/year, but the people working with the system would be collecting information from the general public and entering it into predefined fields.

I'm convinced the programmer had an internal logic at work that made sense to him. All too often, though, that's logic that's never encountered the real world.

Maurice Hamoy of Inset Systems said once, "Watching a videotape of a user interacting with your product can be excruciating. It's like watching a horror movie you've seen before....You know they're heading for big trouble. You want to be able to yell at them, "No! No! Don't go in there! You'll never get out!"

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This page contains a single entry by Stevie Rocco published on June 9, 2010 7:40 PM.

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