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Wwwwhy Designs Fail March 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
Tags: , ,

Here’s a simple test: pick a web site, any web site.  Try typing the URL the old-fashioned way, with “www” in front.  Did it work?  Most certainly.  Now try it again, with just “ww,” “w,” or even “wwww.”  Did any of those work?  I’ll give you even money one or more of them failed.

Why?  People mistype this stuff all the time!  Don’t you think that some considerate, thoughtful systems administrator would have taken the time to create the “near miss” versions of his web site, just to make it easier on the users?  You’d think that, but they certainly didn’t.  And hundreds, maybe thousands of users feel the effects of one unthinking person.

This isn’t about poor web site name management.  The real issue here is that too many developers don’t take the time to figure out where users might make mistakes so that they can program around them.  The goal of any system is to make it as easy as possible for the user, and that includes silently detecting and correcting mistakes wherever possible.

Much like interfaces that force users to perform mundane tasks better left to the computer (like insisting on perfectly formatted credit card numbers) mistake-intolerant tools force the user to do more work for no good reason.  By definition, humans make errors.  When dealing with other people, we silently recognize and correct minor errors all the time.  People are really good at figuring out intent based on context and ignoring minor faux pas.  Computers aren’t naturally good at this, which is why developers need to consider all sorts of potential errors that might occur in their systems.  Wherever possible, they need to accept the error, anticiapte the intent, and move forward.

This kind of design error is not limited to software systems.  It extends to leadership as well.  Too many leaders insist on “correct” behavior from their team, expecting behavior that exactly matches what they might do when presented with a task.  Good leaders allow for creativity and understand that there are many paths to the goal.  Tolerating multiple paths that reach the same goal is a sign of a confident leader.

This isn’t to say that it’s OK to miss the goal.  It’s not, and failure needs to be addressed.  But are you allowing your people the latitude to take routes you didn’t anticipate and still reach the goal?  Like a system that gauges intent and still delivers the desired result, strong leadership encourages creativity that will find other paths.  In the best scenarios, your people will find a way that is better than yours, and even in the worst case, you can use the less-optimal paths as teachable moments to improve your team’s performance in the future.


1. Susan Mazza - March 18, 2009

This is a a very creative lens to observe leadership through Chuck.

People in positions of authority all too often think they know the right way – it seems to be a carryover from the command and control model of management that many organizations (and people) continue to have a hard time breaking away from. You are right on – Effective leaders (and managers for that matter) focus on communicating what the outcome needs to be and leave the how up to the people they are making the request of. If they think their way is the right way I don’t think they are actually leading. At best they are micromanaging.

On the technology front I have more than once mistyped a web address and ended up on a marketing site built by someone who figured out how to profit from our mistakes. 15 years ago when I worked directly with technology related jobs mistakes made by users were all too often met by technology professsionals with the attitude that “users are losers” – mistakes were a sign of stupidity and a problem with the user not with the design. Questions like “why can’t they follow instructions” and “why don’t they just read the manual” were asked instead of your point of “how can we anticipate normal human error and design for it to make it easy for the users?”.

Your post leads me to believe there are vestiges of those old attitudes in the technology professional psyche, just as command and control management is still alive and well in places where it no longer works.

2. prissyperfection - March 19, 2009

I like your analogy, Chuck. The leader who expects people to do things as s/he would do them is missing a huge opportunity for creative things to happen. In this scenario, People tend to do things by rote. They refer to rule books and manuals; they wait to be told what to do; and they park their imaginations at the door. Under these circumstances, it is entirely possible that they get little satisfaction from their work as well so no one wins.

And, Susan makes a good point. The person who holds a tight rein on people and monitors their every move is not leading at all.

Being something of a “techno-ramus”, I have experienced some pretty frustrating times when attempting to complete official documents on-line. If I missed one character, the whole thing seized up and failed to tell me why. So I can relate to your reference and rather wish there were more IT professionals like you around!

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