The Human Cost of Interface Failure
By Samuel Greengard
The Web as we know it is almost two decades old. You would think that by now designers would have a pretty good idea of how to create functional websites and online services. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Somewhere between blue sky and bean counting lies the very real world of how people use websites and services. Apple has made a fortune building devices that just work. A couple of years ago, while I was in a small Chinese village, a friend handed a 3-year-old an iPhone and the girl swiped through photos and listened to songs without anyone offering any assistance.
Yet many sites and services—particularly those built by government and educational institutions—are next to impossible to use. You may find yourself searching Google or Bing because the search function at the site is utterly useless. You may find yourself forced to write text in a word processing program and paste it into the site because the text boxes don't work right and, if you are forced to hit the back button, all your typing is lost. Add an iPad to the mix and things can get really ugly.
But it doesn’t stop there. Too often, a mishmash of menus and byzantine knowledge bases make it next to impossible to resolve an issue. Meanwhile, travel and expense systems require hours of training or a PhD in computing science to understand and use. Then companies toss kerosene on the fire by hiding phone numbers or deploying a flaky support system that routes emails and other messages to semi-literate support staff or a black hole.
In an era where branding and image are everything, these outcomes are unacceptable. Of course, those that operate these subpar and dysfunctional sites are frequently oblivious to the situation. They’re too busy patting themselves on the back about meeting some metric that doesn’t matter. And because designers and engineers know how to use the site and the underlying systems, the thought doesn't cross their minds that others may be struggling ... and fuming.
Apple—along with Google and Microsoft—are continuing to push consumer tech and interfaces into the mainstream. As these systems and tools take hold across society, aged, obsolete and genuinely bad interfaces stand out like a 1957 Buick Thunderbird at a Formula I race. What's more, with the average consumer now possessing near-zero patience, the line between acceptable and not acceptable is diverging rapidly. CIOs should think about consumers as water: They will always find the fastest route to their destination. And that may mean bypassing your enterprise.
That's web physics in the digital age.