Stupid users -

Stupid users

End users—who needs 'em? As engineers we're constantly amazed at how stupid our end users seem to be. They can never find the right button or follow the simplest instructions, even though they're clearly spelled out on page 47 of the users' manual available as a PDF on your company's website. We've all heard the joke about the PC user who mistakes his CD-ROM drive for a cup holder. Sometimes it seems like customers are more trouble than they're worth.

Of course, that's not really true. Our customers pay our salaries and indirectly buy our development tools and components for us. They're probably not really as stupid as we seem to think. Nine times out of ten, a confused user is the developer's fault. Bad user interfaces and unintuitive operating modes can confuse the most patient of users—and most aren't that patient to begin with.

Take my microwave oven. Please. It's made by a major, nominally American, appliance company that shall remain nameless but whose name begins with W and ends with “irlpool.” On it there's a button clearly labeled “Add Minute.” Care to guess what that button does? It adds 30 seconds to the cooking time. That's right—half a minute. I'm pretty sure this is not my fault.

Our regular contributor Niall Murphy is a user-interface expert who can recount tales of poorly realized user interfaces. There are whole websites devoted to bad user-interface design. My point is, we're often too quick to blame other people for our own design faults.

It's not that users can't read manuals; it's that they don't want to. They have other things to do and learning the ins and outs of their new VCR or DVD recorder or MP3 player isn't worth a lot of their time. You'd think they'd be excited to read about all the sophisticated and elaborate features they just paid for, but apparently not. All the evidence suggests the contrary.

Right now I'm tinkering with a new home-automation system that turns lights on and off remotely. It's pretty slick and according to the box one of its best features is that it requires NO setup (big letters theirs). This claim is repeated frequently in the manual. Which I read several times because I couldn't set it up. Turns out the no-setup setup requires pushing a small button on one controller, running downstairs to push a button on another controller, running back upstairs to push the first button again, and then observing an LED to confirm that everything worked okay. If not, the manual suggests I “try something different.” Like changing my socks, perhaps?

Sometimes elegant engineering is thwarted by poor interface design, bad marketing, or simple human nature. Most digital camera buyers don't read the manual thoroughly, thinking they can operate the camera “on sight,” relying on familiar icons and preconceived notions of what a camera does. We do the same with new cars; most of the interfaces are standardized so we don't bother studying the details of a new one. I suspect we're all guilty of ignoring instructions and discarding manuals. We can't expect any better from our own customers. Keep up the elegant engineering. But give some real thought to the user's experience. And don't assume he's any smarter than you are.

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