Monday, February 21, 2005


making it make mistakes

Today I watched in horror as my friend tried to undo a mistake. (I hope he forgives me for telling this story.) Seems he transferred $10,000 in a stranger's bank account, instead of transferring the money into one of his own bank accounts. The unintended beneficiary of the transferred money had once received a small bank transfer for a purchase on an eBay-like auction site. Ever since, the stranger (we'll call him Mr. X) occupied a place of honor in my friends growing registry of accounts that had money deposited in them via online bank transfers. All these accounts conveniently appear in a drop down list. With a few mentally preoccupied auto-pilot clicks of a confirmation screen, a prudent savings account holder can do some damage.

What happened in this upsetting comedy was not, strictly speaking, a case of bad usability. There was nothing misleading or ambiguous about the screens. My friend admits: he made a mistake. Just like us humans, we make mistakes. But the system conspired to make it easy for the mistake to be made. Some people -- IBM for example -- refer to usability as "ease of use." In my friend's case, ease of use itself was the problem. Some tasks require we pay attention, and so they shouldn't be too easy. I once heard a safety consultant compare the design of cars with fighter planes. In fighter planes, designers force the pilot to pay attention and be vigilant. In cars, designers try to make driving less taxing mentally, and offer many distractions to the boring task of following the road. Drivers are rewarded with easy of use, but can be lulled into accidents.

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