Not Always Your Fault

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"I must have done something wrong."

I hear this a lot when people are using computer interfaces. These days that's often websites, often for large corporations, and often trying to accomplish something one feels should be simple.

Yet somehow, despite one's best efforts, it just doesn't work.

My most recent example is of my mother trying to pay a bill via the company's website. You'd think companies would do everything possible to make it easy to give them money. Getting your money is one of the things they really ought to get right.

And yet my mother would dutifully go down the screen, entering the requested information in each box, clicking "Yes I agree" where necessary, working methodically through the page. Then where there were the options for payment, she clicked the "Pay by VISA" button.

Nothing happened.

OK, back to the top and work through it again, double-checking the information, reading the text beside each box to make sure the necessary information was correct.

Click "Pay by VISA".

Nothing happened.

Then a minor miracle. Instead of blaming herself and saying that she must be stupid, she said:

"I've done everything it says, so if I've missed something it can't be obvious."


Instead of simply blaming herself for not understanding, or for being stupid, or for being bad with computers, she understands now that sometimes websites or computer interfaces don't get it wrong. Sometimes they aren't clear. Sometimes they aren't obvious.

And sometimes they lead you to do something that seems reasonable, but is in fact wrong.

It's not always your fault.

It's not always the fault of the machine and its programmers either, you understand. User Interfaces are hard. There are a lot of people, and not only are they weird, they are weird in many different ways. Trying to account for that is hard, and I would never say otherwise.

But sometimes I come across a user interface and think: "I have no idea how the designer/programmer/implementer could possibly have thought this was a good idea.

And now my mother has come to the point of accepting that it's not always her fault.

That's a sign of real progress.

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