Humour vs. computers, and the importance of usability

Computers, unlike any tool in history, seem to be the butt of a number of jokes. Sometimes it is about the stupidity of they way a computer talks to us:

Press any key

Sometimes it is a common irritation with a feature designed to be helpful:

P*** off, clippy.

In a certain type of siege mentality, even the images of someone finally losing it with their computer are humourous:

Sadly, though, the frustrations our computers create for us are not always funny. Sometimes, as in this 2003 case, they are dangerous — a man shot his computer four times in a fit of rage that he could not do what he wanted to do. Anyone who has done a course on human computer interaction will almost certainly have seen the beer taps used to replace levers in a nuclear power plant to make it easier for workers to distinguish “the big red button” and not press it.

While the cost of bad user interfaces is not usually counted in danger, it is incredibly pervasive. A 2001 survey of 6000 computer users showed an average of 5.1 hours wasted per week grappling with computer problems, and frankly, I don’t think much has changed since then. Think of the last time you called a call centre, or asked a retailer if they could order something they didn’t have in store. How many times did they apologise for having difficulty with the computer, and taking so long? How much time did you spend standing there, or hanging on the line? Were you, as I was yesterday in a shoe store, sympathetic, and slightly embarrassed?

We create jokes like those above because computers make us feel bad — they make us angry, they make us feel stupid, they waste our time, and the things designed to help us (like Clippy) are often insulting. User interfaces designed with users in mind, like iPods and Nokia cellphones engender tremendous loyalty because they don’t create those negative feelings. While I am sure that their competitors may be technically just as brilliant, I have never used them because I like my iPod and my Nokia, and because user experience is at least as much who I am as what I do, I take poor user interfaces very personally.

There are two things everyone who uses computers can do to break out of the siege of wasted time, danger, and outright rage that computers impose:

  • Buy the products that irritate you the least. Look for user reviews and see whether the company has a user focus (right now there is a radio ad for navman that mentions usability specifically). When a product frustrates you, if possible, complain to the company that made it. If there is a customer service line, call it — this costs the company money (as poor usability should).
  • If you are designing a product or service, once you have made sure that that product or service is useful, make sure it is also usable. Being useful means you haven’t wasted money on a product no-one will use, but usability will save everyone time and blood pressure.

Computer humour is fun, but it’s black humour. I’d rather not need to resort to humour to cope with my daily interactions with, what are (when all is said and done) tools.


3 Responses to “Humour vs. computers, and the importance of usability”

  1. 1 Electra Monday, January 21, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    I love that f&#king help tool humour…

  2. 2 Don Smith Friday, November 7, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I borrowed your utube post and used it on my site today, thanks. I gave you a link back, hope that is alright.


  1. 1 Sour Grapes … Computer Rage « Creative Endeavors Trackback on Friday, November 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm

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