On Usability

by bob on March 2, 2012

It’s spring, when many US citizens not only have to cope with figuring out their income taxes, but if they have college-bound or college-age children, learn that there are things worse — far worse — than the dreaded Form 1040.

I’m speaking of FAFSA and related “now you have to dance for your money” applications for needs-based tuition assistance. I recall this as an invasive, demeaning, traumatic experience back 10 to 15 years ago when my own children went on to college, but these days the FAFSA is online. I’ve been in a position to assist someone with this process whose children are just entering higher education, so I’ve had a ringside seat to hideous designed-by-committee, made-worse-by-geeks online software.

Like many online apps, the FAFSA form has a preconceived workflow that is not particularly obvious and may not even be particularly feasible depending on your situation. But let’s just say that even a computer and web-literate user will be severely punished by doing something as innocent as using the browser’s Back button at any time. The online FAFSA will consider certain actions to be a re-submittal and too many of them will result in your PIN being revoked and obliging you to go through an arduous process and waiting several days for them to issue a new one. Your child has full access and can go in and “correct” things thinking they’re being helpful and adding to the general mayhem. Potentially your ex can get involved, too. It’s enough to make sane people want to hang themselves from the rafters.

But wait, there’s more. About one-sixth of FAFSA filers are randomly selected to be audited and are then obliged to send in huge paper packets anyway, copies of tax returns and W2’s and child support affidavits and the like, which is what I recall having to do anyway back before this stuff was on the Internet. That is accomplished through the College Board, which is another web site. This morning I got a support call about that. To log in you’re asked for an ID number, your child’s birth date, and your child’s social security number. All three were correctly entered, yet the site threw up this dialog box:

Please provide two correct pieces of information.

What? Three pieces were provided. What’s the frigging problem? Well the answer turned out to be in a close reading of the original form, which said words to this effect:

“Please enter any two of the three following pieces of information.”

The solution was to remove one of the three field values and re-submit.

Now I ask you, reasonable reader: what is the problem with the user giving the site MORE information than it asked for? Why couldn’t the login form just randomly discard one of the three fields? I’ll tell you why: because some overly literal-minded programmer was saying to himself, “I TOLD them in CLEAR ENGLISH EXACTLY what to input, and they didn’t, so that’s an error.”

This kind of mentality is the Fungus Among Us. User interfaces should be forgiving, especially when it costs us nothing at all to make them so. Most people aren’t that literal minded, and that’s okay. Accommodate them.

The inability of many software developers to write effective prose or to think like users (without regarding them disdainfully as “lusers”) is a huge problem in our industry. Many times the user interface design and workflow are really created by developers, not by people actually trained in user experience design or accessibility. If it falls to you to create the entire user experience, check your attitude at the door, have some empathy for the poor sap who has to actually get work done, and think about whether what you’re crafting works from their point of view.

Maybe you should (gasp!) actually talk to a few users and find out what their needs and pain points are. Maybe you should do the same after a new release has been in the wild for a bit. It’s in your self interest; ultimately, angry, frustrated users are a threat to your value proposition. It does no good to rail against them. If they’re not happy then you’re not doing your job.

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