If the user can’t use it, it’s broken

A few days ago, I tried to pump up my bicycle. I knew what to do: add air to inflate the inner-tubes. And I knew that I’d need a pump. I had to borrow one.

Bike-tire pumpThe connectors and attachments suggested this pump would fit two types of inner-tube valve as well as valves for air mattresses, footballs, and basketballs. So, an all-round useful pump.

But the thing is, neither the pump’s owner nor I were able to make it work. We couldn’t connect the pump to the valve. So i wondered, did the manufacturer test this product by putting it in the hands of first-time and occasional users, to see how it performed?

This raises some questions. Was it me? Was it the valve? Was it the pump? Why were we unable to complete the task?

Preparing for the task

Any time a person wants to do a task, there is an initial phase of discovery, which could include discovering the:

  • concept of what to do.
  • mechanics of how to do it.

This applies to anything physical—from bicycle pumps to digital products that are run by software.

Discovering the concept

I already understood that a pump pushes air, through the valve, into the inner-tube. And I understood that the valve lets air in and keeps it in the inner-tube.

Discovering the mechanics

I needed to know how to connect the pump to the valve, and how to get the pump to move air into the inner-tube.

The up-and-down plunging motion of the pump showed me that there was air coming out of the pump’s hose. But, as mentioned, I was unable to connect the hose to the valve.

What’s the problem…?

Why were we unable to complete the task? Let’s elaborate on the questions raised earlier:

  • Was it me? Probably not. On many prior occasions, I have been able to inflate an inner-tube. I understood the concepts. I understood the mechanics of the inner-tube, its valve, and even most this pump—I was able to make it expel air by pumping the plunger.
  • Was it the valve? Probably not. On many occasions, I’ve inflated inner-tubes that had the exact same valve. This valve was keeping the air in the partially-inflated tube. My grandfather taught me to inspect, clean, and reassemble valves when I was ten.
  • Was it the pump? The pump wouldn’t stay connected to the valve. There were no instructions on the pump. It had no affordance—no physical cues to suggest how its parts might be turned or manipulated to make it grip and remain tightly on the valve.

On the first attempt, people—users—often blame themselves when they cannot use an object or finish a process. Over time, over multiple sessions, people start to recognise that the task failure lies in the object they’re using, or in its processes, rather than their own (in)ability.

In contrast, people who engineer an object—makers—often blame the users for failing to figure it out. If the makers tracked their pump’s performance with a larger sample—more than just me and the pump’s owner—it might reveal that the task failure rate is high for many first-time or novice users. Such a pattern would point to a design issue. Most people need a bicycle pump only infrequently. Tracking their pump’s performance with a sample of such occasional users might reveal a struggle to re-learn the task every time.

I was a novice user of the pump. Its owner was an occasional user of this pump. There’s certainly a possibility that our task failure was due to the design of the pump.

The same applies more generally to other physical things, including digital products (software), mediated by screens, keyboards, and clicks or taps. If many users can’t use it, it’s your product that’s broken … or it may as well be.

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