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How to be Dumb

Now that Alan Cooper’s personas have become famous, one of the most prominent and well-known goals for user interface designers is not to make the user look stupid. This goal isn’t really new because we all know of situations where we or someone else looked horribly stupid when trying to do something on a computer. Even the smartest women and men can look stupid at a computer if they don’t know which button to click, menu command to call, or key to press – defenseless and exposed to the laughter and ridicule of other, less knowledgeable people.

I came across so many people who did not dare touch a computer in my presence, either because they feared destroying something on the computer or afraid they would look stupid. As this problem is a really big issue for computer users, one of the most prominent and noble research areas for usability people should be to investigate how computers can avoid making people look stupid.

Figure 1: Like so many other personas, Gerhard – my personal persona – does not want to look stupid when working at the computer

Computers are Intransparent

In the early days, computers were totally intransparent: there were just some switches and light bulbs at the computer’s front panel that served for the communication with the “knowledgeable.” From time to time, the computers spit out a punched tape, which again required some machine to decode it. (The “experts,” however, could even decode the tape just by looking at it.) Later, computers printed out some more or less cryptic characters, and even later, the user communicated with the computer via keyboard, monitor and mouse – that’s the state we have today. But however sophisticated these devices are, we still look into the computers’ inner workings through a “peephole” called a monitor.

Do we really understand what state the computer is in, which commands it expects and what its cryptic error and system “messages” mean? No – computers often still leave us in the dark about what they expect from us, what they want us to do and what they can do for us. So, it’s no wonder that even the smartest people can look stupid in front of a computer, but even ordinary people like you and me can too.

Computers are Rigid Machines

As we all know, computers are mindless, rule-following, symbol-manipulation machines. They are just machines, though not ruled by the laws of mechanics but by the rules of logic and by the commands of their programs. Nevertheless, there is no inbuilt flexibility in computers, they just react according to the commands that have been programmed into them.

There have been long debates in the past whether artificial intelligence based on symbol manipulation is possible. Some people have proven that it is, others haven proven that it is not – in the end, this issue seems a matter of personal belief. So, let’s return to “real life.” We have all had the experience that computers are rigid in so many ways: they issue error messages, they do not find a file or search item if you misspell a name, they crash if they run on a wrong command. This stubbornness drives many users crazy: they feel stupid because they can’t remember even the simplest cryptic command. And they feel inferior to those “logical” machines because they are “fuzzy” human beings who commit so many errors.

Computers Can Cheat – But Not so Well…

But even if computers exhibit some flexibility, it is because farsighted programmers have programmed this flexibility into them. Often these programmers are not farsighted enough, or do not take human characteristics into account, such as the desire for a certain stability of the work environment. For example, there is a current trend to make computer systems adaptive in order to make them easier to use. The adaptive menus in the recent Microsoft applications are an example of this approach: the menus adapt their appearance according to their usage – with the result that people like me are puzzled each time they open a menu because it always looks different. So, today’s computers are even narrow-minded when they try to be flexible. They still make people look stupid, for example because the system changes its look and behavior in unpredictable ways.

Computers Are too Complex and Complicated for their Users

One of the arguments, often put forward by developers of complex software, is that it’s not the computers that are stupid but the users. Well, I let this stand as it is, but of course there are many occasions where average users are overwhelmed by the complexity of their computer hardware and software. There are so many things you have to remember and think of, far more than in a car or household. So, if you forget to bear in mind one important detail, all your efforts in trying to impress your friends or colleagues with how well you can master computer technology may be ruined within a second.

Let me illustrate this point with an example. Lately I took some photos of my friends with my awesome digital camera, actually a computer in itself. My friends were enthusiastic about the photos. OK, I said, and now I will print these images in the blink of an eye. My friends’ enthusiasm increased and I received many “oh’s” and “ah’s” because how fast the process of taking and printing a photo could go. But then there was a problem – I had forgotten to reconnect the printer to the USB port because I had used my scanner on that port. However, when I connected the cable, the computer did not recognize the printer, despite all the hype and promises with USB. Finally, I had to reboot the computer. So the blink of an eye turned into a quarter of an hour, and my friends had plenty of time for a couple of jokes on computers in general and on my “well prepared” equipment in particular.

Computers Can Be Mean and Wicked

Many of us can tell stories of evil computer experiences: the program that crashes shortly before you want to save an important mail or document that you worked on for several hours or the printer that jams in the middle of printing the slides for an urgent presentation. Computers can have even allies in their wickedness. Again and again, someone prints a 100-page document with lots of graphics when you are in a hurry and need to print a paper shortly before a meeting. I could continue with such stories for hours. So, how do computers know when the “right” moment has come to break down? This question still remains a mystery to me and requires further investigation. From Clifford and Nass’ book The Media Equation, we know that many people attribute human characteristics to computers and often treat them like humans – especially in those breakdown situations. On the other hand, we know that computers are rigid machines and typically do not care about human reactions and emotions. How can we clarify this contradiction? Some people believe that computers just follow the “law of maximum meanness,” similar to entropy in thermodynamics, others still believe there are demons inside computers.

I do not know who is right, but at least I have some examples to offer of how “wicked” computers make people appear stupid. Yes, computers can make your life hard at times, and they know well when the time is right – and you become a laughing stock. Presentations are a good time to make people look stupid because the presenters are in a hurry and nervous because the presentation is supposed to make them look good. There is also an audience that is often grateful for the mishaps. Think of the presentations where the server for the demo is not available although it was available just a few minutes before; the following hurried activities are well suited for entertaining the audience. Or you want to go to the next slide in a presentation but it does not appear. You click a second time, and – oops -, now you are beyond the slide, and the audience has some fun.


What can we do so that computers cannot make us look stupid? For some people, the simple solution is not to use computers at all. However, there are many people who have to use computers in their daily work. Not every one is old enough for early retirement. So, my advice is to create computer applications that take human characteristics, human strengths and human weaknesses into account. As long as we require human to adapt to the logic of machines, we still will stumble into situations where people look stupid while working with computers. But if we strive hard we will one day arrive at computer programs that accept the users as human beings with all their human limitations.

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