Software that Behaves Like Spoiled Brats

As many people know, one way of analyzing interaction design and system behavior is to do something that has many different names, but usually sounds something like dialog analysis. Dialog analysis is the process of analyzing the software interaction as if the system is a human being who is performing a service for the client, aka the

woe-besieged user. After careful analysis of many products, it seems to us that if most commercial software and Web products were humans, they would be characterized as greedy spoiled brats. Just for an example, look at the way desktop products, customer services, and Web products behave.

Desktop Products

Office productivity tools make you do somersaults to undo their automatic formatting. They also drive you crazy with the collision of features they never knew would be used together. One word processor we were using to create a large document from many sub-documents refused to behave—auto-indenting, bulleting, or renumbering tables into items. It so destroyed the formatting and twisted the style usage that we had to resort to using flattened pictures of some tables and formats. When you try to do something that a product’s designers didn’t anticipate, some products exact their revenge: They do the digital equivalent of throwing everything into a heap, leaving you to clean up the mess all by yourself. This is marginally acceptable behavior from a two-year-old child learning the concept of patience. It is reprehensible behavior in adult human-computer interactions, and it turns the product into something we call a spoiled brat.

Customer Service Products

How ironic that some of the most abusive products around are software products designed for customer service. Let’s just take call-center experiences as an example. Phone trees in service calls exhibit “do what I say or else” behavior. The user follows patiently along only to find 17 steps later that the end point is closed, or does not give you the information you expected, or transfers you to a busy line, or leaves you no way to return anywhere but to the beginning of the long depressing tree. Brat.

Web Sites and Services

There are also hidden brat interfaces that reflect the bratty intentions of their owners. All too many Web services abuse users by demanding all sorts of personal information, much of it completely unrelated to buying the service. They then turn around and sell your name and information to other people to spam and telemarket you to no end. These sites even brashly claim that your data is safe and that they have privacy rules and policies. Here the HCI brat is the very small print and the checkmark you will overlook that permits them to share your information with other companies with whom they have a relationship (even though that relationship only exists to sell your personal information!).

User experience as a field has a long way to go. Our bratty products do us little credit. Thank goodness we’re not all brats…. There are certainly things to rave about as well!—eic, Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

This is a draft version (preprint) of material which was later published in substantially the same form in my Rant column in ACM’s magazine. The published version is a copyrighted feature of Communications of the ACM. All requests for reproduction and/or distribution of the published version should be directed to the ACM.

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