Users are the enemy

At a client meeting yesterday one of the items raised was the fact that users were typing in their telephone numbers incorrectly on various web forms. The forms are set up to require the user to enter numbers like 9028922556 — in other words, with no punctuation of any sort. Even though it says right there on the form that users are supposed to use this format, some users ignore this instruction and enter their phone number like (902) 892-2556.

The putative reason for the no-punctuation format was because this makes it easier for Adobe Acrobat to format the telephone numbers. In other words, we programmers were being lazy and forcing users to do the work that computers are supposed to do.

I shocked myself, during this discussion, by momentarily thinking “now, how can we force users to use the proper format?”. In other words, the programmer’s desire to be lazy, and hostile to users is very strong.

Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and we made the decision to let users enter telephone numbers in any old format they want.

This episode makes the recent move by Trent University (pimping for Bell Canada) to change their phone system conceivable.

Conceivable, but not forgivable.

The new, upgraded [sic] system does away with people at Trent having bona fide telephone numbers and forces everyone to call a central number and use a speech recognition system to get connected to their party.

In other words, in this case cooler heads did not prevail, and the result is a move from an easy, comfortable user interface (pick up phone, dial number) hostile user interface (dial central number, speak name to voice recognition system, confirm speech recognition).

While the new system has a temporary “gee-whiz” quality to it (hey, the computer understood me), once this wears off we are left with a system which sacrifices usability for showmanship, cost-saving and corporate philandering.