Technology Failures or “Hammering with a Screwdriver”

The guiding principle of technology is, technology is supposed to make our lives better by alleviating the drudgery from our lives and letting us have more time doing what we enjoy. But there is a dark side to technology, and I am not talking about surveillance this time. This dark side is perpetrated by people who create it and use it. I’m going to talk about two things: design/process failure and computer etiquette “netiquette” because they have the same basic root cause.

There are many failures in use of  technology by companies that should know better that I wonder how the people in charge manage to keep their jobs. Now it is easy for me to sit here atop my perch and take pot shots, insulated from all the conflicting pressures of making products that both please the management’s bottom line and customers. However, I have always been of the opinion that there is a way to do both. There are solutions that can actually deliver more satisfaction to both company and customer.

Most of the failures, I chalk up to simple lack of consideration. From the looks of it, things are designed by people that don’t actually use them. If the person who is in charge of “User Experience” doesn’t test the hell out of the end result and try to break the system by finding exceptions, then the experience isn’t going to be as good as it could be. The other problem is people are unfamiliar with all that is available to them to help them accomplish their task. I’ll often get people asking be about a,b,c when they really just want to get d and e done., and there is a product that makes doing d and e as simple as pushing one button.

Today, I’ll focus on pointing out things I encounter everyday, and I’m sure you do as well. You can spot them too. All you have to do is take note of anytime you suffer a work-stoppage because something trips you up and makes you deal with it before you can get on with your task.

The biggest thing is for people to move away from this paradigm of digital documents being limited to those of physical objects. The answer to making things easier for people to reference things was revealed decades ago: it’s Hypertext. I do not know of a single modern desktop nor mobile OS that doesn’t have the ability to be hypertext-aware. Hyperlinking the hell of things would solve a ton of wasted time.

Here’s my Festivus “List of Grievances”—a bit late, but the problems below delayed this:


Unhelpful “Help”: If you’re going to bother including a help file, why make it a single level file with no external links? A hypertext laden document with external and internal links to related content is easy to create if the people who put together the documentation are hyper-aware and comfortable using any variety of markup languages from HTML to Markdown.

Unfamiliar Icons: If you are going to use new icons in your interface for goodness sake, introduce them. A screen shot with each icon hyperlinked to an explanation and “further reading” would help a lot. I’m a pretty savvy computer user, so if it takes me well over 5 minutes to find out what the hell this cryptic symbol meant, you’ve failed as a UI designer. If I can’t find any reference to your icon or any application specific words used in the interface in your documentation, you’ve failed as a technical writer.

“Mystery options”: In preference panes a little superscript question mark in a circle “(?)” that users could click and see what the option means would save a trip to searching the documentation. Mouseover tooltips also work. It could be a simple help ballon with a link to the entry in the help documentation. That would allow your user to learn the product quickly and access the more advanced features many people never use because they don’t even know they’re there or finding out how to use them is cumbersome.

Error Dialogs: cryptic codes or insufficient information. Making hyperlinked dialogs to revamped help apps with links to up-to-date information and the KB article would help immensely.


Knowledge Bases Information Hunts: Information in Knowledge Bases is either too little or too much. Often I do not know what the technical term someone used for something might be, so I have to hunt for the magic words. If I do not use the exact phrase the documentation writer did, I will not find anything. Worse is when I cannot limit the scope on my search to one product, or filter out information that only pertains to previous versions. That results in getting hundreds if not thousands of hits.

Vague Web Forms: There is a general lack what’s acceptable input, only that it is required or optional. Whenever I hit the password field it devolves into a guessing game “Will it only take alpha-numeric or will it also accept common symbols?” & “What is the maximum password length?” So, I fill out these forms blind, and if I’m lucky the exception is then explained in red text: “Only alphanumeric characters and *$!% are accepted” or “The maximum password allowable is 15 characters.” This morning I tried to create an account on a cutting edge web service company’s site and didn’t even get any feedback as to why it couldn’t handle my registration. Is the system down? Or can it not handle a 128 character password with symbols? I still have no idea, so I can’t use the service. The California DMV site is surprisingly helpful, listing their username, password and email policies. Too bad their email filters out legitimate email addresses.

Monolithic or Fragmented Documents: Documentation in many projects takes one of 2 forms: either it’s one huge page with an index that no one bothers to hyperlink to the relevant content, or it’s a separate page for each and every entry, including the introductions to the topics. If it is a long intro explaining things, that’s more forgivable, but when it is a one paragraph entry making you click many links to get to the information you want. PHP’s documentation annoys me for this reason. Luckily there are a few projects out there that include hyperlinks in the index or ones that allow some flexibility in how far down the outline one goes.

Overly General Product Information: “Product Specifications” pages that are nothing more than brochures listing vague details. Last year I was trying to find an inexpensive laptop that could operate in harsh environments. Few manufacturers had environmental limits listed in their spec sheets, if I could even find a specs sheet.

PDF files in place of HTML Documents: Unless you want people to be able to download a single file for print or some other purpose, there in no excuse for only offering information in PDF format if it is for public consumption. PDFs are not searchable outside of Acrobat reader, and they are hardly light on storage needs.

Flash-based Content on Pages Linked for Mobile Devices: not just iOS won’t handle it, and Flash on mobile is a huge battery drain. I’m glad to see many sites offering HTML5 video finally. I often see a link on twitter that leads to a page where I can’t watch the video. Luckily, this has improved immensely since Adobe announced pulling the plug on mobile Flash.

Over Tweeting or Double Tweets: Hey, I know you want to raise awareness and build a following, but tweeting excessively will annoy people. If you are an aggregate service, a daily or thrice-daily link to relevant news would be appreciated. What’s completely unacceptable is when a company or someone tweets the same content with slightly different “teasers.” (I’m looking at you HuffPo and Kawasaki.) It is as if they are unaware that I could simply scroll down to see the previous entry into the feed. I usually just end up un-following those companies. (Yes, I know I can make lists to filter, but having to filter to make your feed manageable is different from wanting to filter.) There are some people that use Twitter masterfully and people could learn from them: George Takei and Ars Technica come immediately to mind.


Internal Data Systems for Support Designed by Morons: A customer service representative’s job is hard enough. Why make them collect the same info from a customer multiple times? Why make me key in my account number if you’re just going to have a representative ask for it again? Why make them able to accept credit cards, yet not be able to toss that info into the custom order database? I made or received about 10 calls to or from various company support lines in the last 2 weeks and many of them had these problems and worse, some had their system down so they were unable to work. If you have a database system, link the hell out of it, and stop making your representatives jump through hoops to serve the customer. Don’t make difficult customers the “easy” part of the job.

Support Lines not Properly Staffed: If I call a support line, the person on the other end should know what I am talking about and either have all the information needed or be competent enough to research it on the fly. That also means giving your support people full access to internal knowledge bases and the internet. If people are goofing off and your solution is to cut internet access, that doesn’t address the root problem.


This is usually where I wrap it up, but I’m pretty sure the above stands on its own. If you take away one thing, it is this: do your homework, take the time to research best practices in design, interfaces and respecting your customers and followers. I’ll touch more on Netiquette later, but until then: remember the goal of technology. Think about it the next time you come across technology that makes your life more difficult: give the people that designed it feedback, and try to be constructive. Thanks for reading.

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