This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
Windows 95 is famous for requiring the shutting down of the system by clicking ‘start', like stopping your car by turning the ignition key on. Why are so many interfaces so user-unfriendly?
The Covid app to register your entering premises can be so clumsy. Sometimes I have signed in, sat down and ordered drinks by the time my companion has got the bloody thing to work. Its coverage is scattered. Many people do not carry a phone. Some do not use apps or they do not work on their phones (even if their users think they do).
I could now go on to discuss the difficulties the government has had with managing the Covid crisis. Many are keen to criticise destructively. My view is almost the opposite. The initial lockdown was a dream but it misled us that the task was easy. We cannot expect governments (or businesses) to implement complex regimes without making mistakes and overlooking the obvious – or the ‘obvious’ with hindsight.
Public criticism may actually be helpful by pressuring the bureaucracy to do better; its whining tone may not be. The fact is we have done very well. I get no pleasure in observing that each day the state of Victoria, with roughly the same population as ours, has more deaths than we have community cases. I pray that our defences continue to hold.
However, the lesson this column wants to draw attention to is that the poor design of this app is not isolated but reflects poor quality arising from geeks who may be technically very sophisticated but do not think about the circumstances of the much less technically savvy users who are not like them in a variety of social characteristics either.
The problem is not confined to the public sector. I offer the example of Microsoft Office, having recently had to upgrade my version (when I ran out of room). I won’t bore you with my troubles (and you in turn do not need to chip in with yours). To simplify, I reckon that compared to the previous version, the new version is much more complicated than the old one – I have to click twice as often to get anything done – it often does things for no explicable reason and while there are some better features including the additional capacity, it could be made much more user-friendly.
Sometimes it is so confusing I google for advice. It is usually there but written on the assumption that I know as much as the geek who wrote it; often the vocabulary is opaque and the constructions contorted. (A friend was expected to download a 40-page manual to understand her new phone.)
When I thinking about this dysfunctional design, I was struck that both examples were monopolies – one public, the other private – and there was that sense they were not accountable to their users. But then I thought of a huge number of poorly designed – typically very fussy – websites in which the owner is hungrily competing for attention. Not only are many not user-friendly, but the difficulty of using them means one looks elsewhere – customer lost.
Presumably the senior executives never go near their websites and they never ask their grandmothers to use them either. They would be told ‘I am sorry dear, I cannot make any sense of it, but it does look nice’. In some instances I have discussed my problems with someone who works for the agency, to be told that the website baffles them too.
The problem of failed digital design was explained to me by my son as follows:
‘To make a good product in the technology industry you need good understanding of people, good understanding of visual design and a good understanding of technology. These attributes rarely exist in one person, so a team must be formed whose skills & experiences collectively cover the three.
‘Too often, internal or external pressures can result in one of these three pillars being elevated over the others – resulting in products that look beautiful, but are unusable, or are easy to use but technically unstable or insecure.
‘A common issue as the project progresses is that the focus shifts from the end users to the end project (i.e. just getting the bloody thing over the line). Organisations can create their own internal groupthink, framework and languages which is applied to their own external product without thought of the audience's understanding. Think of coming across an acronym in an organisational report which only makes sense to people inside the organisation.
‘Even internal personalities can affect the outcome, based on who is in the driver's seat and what they see as important. One US company managed to severely damage their market position when a single stubborn engineer successfully badgered the entire team to drop their market-leading technology platform for one the engineer had designed (which turned out to be disastrous in the real world).’
To be reflective, a major challenge of any columnist is how to engage with the person reading the column. It is particularly difficult for one like me, who is often dealing with very technical and challenging material. It is simpler to choose the easy path of sloppy analysis and platitudes. Readers (or audiences) love it. But all that happens is that their prejudices are confirmed and the national conversation stagnates. How to keep the reader comfortable and stimulated is quite a challenge if far more valuable.
In writing, a key player is the subeditor. (Incidentally I am amazed at those who can correct copy almost as fast as I can read it, and then discuss the contents.) My impression is that geek designers do not have the equivalent and that those who commission them rarely look at the final product. They certainly do not get it adequately tested by potential users or their ‘grandmothers’.
I am not totally pessimistic. There are highly technical design teams, like the group which Tama works for, which produce user-friendly interfaces.
Why the competent do not clean out the market is a puzzle. Perhaps where there is competition, inertia means it takes time. Perhaps design teams are limited in size and so quality businesses cannot scale up.
Monopolies are another matter. I despair of Microsoft and other businesses which dominate their markets. I rail against equivalent public failures. I wish my political representatives gave us more support. With luck we will have a Covid-monitoring user-friendly identification system by the time we get to the next outbreak.
Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.