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Don't let your computer bully you

Submitted by Jakob on 21 May, 2006 - 01:19.My Blog | Human-Computer Interaction | Psychology | Usability

Usability is interesting, not just because you learn a lot about how people think and feel but because you don't let bad application designers get away with it. People who work with usability are probably the hardest to satisfy, they will not accept a solution that is hard to use. Regular users on the other hand, often let their applications bully them into submission. In fact it's a sound conclusion to say that if more users had less respect for their applications people would generally feel less stressed at work.

A lot of end users are scared of computers, not scared in the sense that they might be dangerous but they're afraid of making mistakes. They have an inferiority complex to the machine, or the ingenious programmers and engineers that put it together. I guess we all do, a computer is after all a very complex machine. In a very interesting book called The Semiotic Engineering of Human-Computer Interaction, author De Souza makes the point that computers and applications can be considered what she calls "the designer's deputy" and makes a case for HCI to focus on understand how the intentions of a design of an application affects its use. The core of it is that an application is considered a form of communication, a message from the application designer to the user. Research seems to indicate that users usually consider an application the expression of how a programmer intends the application to be used. The consequence becomes that when a user makes a mistake, the user most often blames him/herself for lacking skills or knowledge instead of criticizing the design of the application.

Because of this respect for the application designer, most often perceived as a programmer, this enigmatic wizard of bytes and silicon, users seldom criticize the application for the mistakes they make. I recall myself using computers and when making errors swearing, blaming myself for not reading the manuals or having a better understanding. Nowadays my perspective is entirely different, I would most likely turn my frustration into critique of the application rather than criticize myself.

It seems to me that usability professionals have a less forgiving attitude towards the machine, as his or her understanding of the problem is at the core of his or her profession. A usability professional knows that a human being designed the application, so if users make mistakes it is the application designer's fault, not the end users'. If the usability professional ends up in the same situation he/she will not blame him/herself, instead the person will most likely, and in an analytical manner, try to figure out what the problem with the application is and why it allowed, or even aided the user, in making an error turning it into a task of problem analysis.

This may seems trivial at first but it has quite staggering consequences. It has been shown that error messages such as "Fatal Error" actually lead to increased stress among users, which in the end leads to serious health conditions. Without an understanding of the meaning of "Fatal Error", people get a sense of fear of having damaged the computer permantly and will naturally fear being liable for it as well. The programmers who designed the application probably never imagined the error message would have these consequences, their professional bias was so strong, their understanding of the users so limited.

So when it comes to applications that cause frustration because they are hard to use, error messages that cause people's heartrate to increase it is actually the application designer's fault. If you keep that in mind next time your computer drives you nuts and wait a second before you blame yourself and then instead consider the fact that the person who designed probably didn't do a great job, you will save yourself a lot of stress and pain.

If users were made more aware of the fact that an application that doesn't work as it's intended or as its users understand it, is not the user's fault but the application designer's, they would feel less stressed and could use their energy for more productive things instead of letting their computers bully them.

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