Sunday, November 14, 2004


The superstitious user

Several years ago I bought an Apple computer that acted as though it was possessed. I would type letters on the keyboard, and the screen would show gibberish characters that looked like the curses one finds in comic strips. What's more, the computer had another strange behavior: it would turn itself on in the middle of the night, and alternatively turn itself off whilst I was in the middle of using it. It would have been funny were it not for the attitude of Apple. The helpful people at the help desk told me that since the computer was not dead on arrival -- my problem was intermittent -- I couldn't return my new, crazy computer to them. Perhaps they were afraid of tangling with "unexplained" phenomena.

I don't know what was wrong with this computer. My uneducated guess is that it was something to do with a short in the circuitry. If I bought into the work of Robert Jahn at the Princeton University's Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) for the Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena, I might have questioned if my bad attitude had something to do with rogue behavior of the Apple. PEAR notes that "the emotions of human operators may intensify their interactions with the controlling devices and processes" and adds, "protection against such consciousness-related interference could become essential to the design and operation of many future information acquisition and processing systems." In other words, we need to exorcise our machinery against the bad vibes of malcontent users.

I'm not a superstitious person, but I have to work at it. The human mind has a an amazing ability to try to make sense of random noise. The classic case is astrology, where amazingly elaborate systems are constructed to explain the most mundane random phenomenon. Psychologist Stuart Vyse has noted that superstitious thinking manifests in many information technology applications. Bad usability of one sort or another is often at the core of this superstition.

Even though computers seem like the are, and should be, predictable, in fact they are often very mysterious and erratic. To the everyday user, computers are a black box. (A black box is a secret. In the Second World War, black boxes were secret bomb targeting instrumentation on aircraft, sealed in a black box so that even the crew didn't know how they worked or how to fix them.)

Far from being predictable, computers often seem random in their behavior. Thousands, or even millions, of lines of code can yield unpredictable behavior. When computers act erratic, due to some bug in the code, or some oversight in the use case, the user can adopt unhelpful strategies. They can develop an elaborate theory to explain the behavior of the errant program, much like the astrology enthusiast does to understand why the bus was late today. This makes the program seem even more complicated than it is. Alternatively, the user can fail to recognize the program is acting randomly, and assume they are doing something wrong. This can lead to the unfortunate situation of the user doing something obsessive, like repeatedly entering the same information again and again.

Consider the common case of a failed password. The user suffers the indignity of having his password rejected. He might think immediately: did I type it incorrectly? A second attempt fails. Now the user is seriously questioning his motor skills, or his memory. But maybe the server isn't working. Or maybe the network is faulty. Separating what's under the control of the user is not easy, so it's not easy to understand what is a random circumstance.

Some users will blame the computer for anything that doesn't work out to their liking. Others will blame themselves for the same. Until software gets better at illuminating the black box, user frustration will be with us.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?