The End User Should Have the Final Say

It is my opinion, and an increasingly vehement opinion it is indeed, that certain products should not be designed by males without final say by females, and vice versa. This vehemence is inspired by a product that I use on a regular basis. It was “improved and redesigned!”

As with most things, this phrase served as a warning. The warning was well merited.

Said “improvements” reduced the comfort and usefulness of said product, moving it from “useful and about as comfortable as possible given the usage” to “uncomfortable, borderline impossible to use, and prone to self-destruction during removal from wrapper.” Happily, I was able to find a supply of the old version, and used up the last of “new and improved” with a feeling of delight at having rid myself of the odious item.

I have a strong suspicion that it was designed by an anatomical male, perhaps with the assistance of a female who did not think that other women might, perchance, wear underpinnings of a design that varied from her own. Delicacy and a certain respect for the feelings of my male readers forbids me to go into further detail. Suffice it to say that “one design works for all” failed in this case, as in so many.

Likewise, women should not design certain products used only by anatomically male individuals without having said item tested by a variety of men.

In fact, there are a number of things that obviously never, ever passed into the hands of an end user on the path between design and sale. Overly gee-whiz cars with computer displays that reduce safety by having more warnings and alerts than does an airliner, with less logic in the presentation. Certain types of packaging that require a dedicated tool to open, or the strength of Superman, or a very sharp knife that tends to slide on the plastic. Sofas and easy chairs that swallow anyone shorter than 5’8″ tall. Which also applies to movie theater seats. Overly-sensitive side airbags on pickups designed to be used in places where brush might brush against the door while the truck is in motion. Foomp! That led to the addition of a deactivation switch in the next year model and subsequent.

The statistically perfect person does not exist. Would that designers of all types remembered this.

And leave my preferred product alone unless you ask women of all sorts, who wear all different types of clothing, to test it and provide feed-back!


34 thoughts on “The End User Should Have the Final Say

  1. The HRE, borrowing from earlier threads, would probably hand down a Procrustean decision. “Adjustments” to be displayed at major towns and free cities as a reminder to Not Fool With What Works Well.

  2. Oh, yes… Donald Norman, call your office.
    This is a persistent problem with both Web sites and Web browsers. Back in the 90s, when most users were on dialup connections, an awful lot of Web designers only looked at the sites they’d designed over local connections, with the result that those sites ended up completely unusable for the public at large. And the Chrome browser breaks some basic Internet protocols with timeouts that shouldn’t be there at all, and are set short enough that you pretty much need to be connected directly to the ‘Net’s backbone to avoid seeing strange errors every so often – presumably the developers live at Google HQ and never have packet lag. Then there was IE’s penchant for substituting its own error messages for those returned by servers, often resulting in entirely wrong messages (hint: if the server returned any status at all, you don’t need to check your Internet connection, no matter what IE says).
    Pretty much every UI these days is confusing, and the electronic ones are entirely undocumented and change frequently. Communicate with the users? What’s a user? We, the insiders, know how it works! (I speculated a while back that a large investment in learning a user interface may serve as a sort of cult initiation; those who have gone to all the trouble are more likely to stick with the platform, whatever it may be.)
    And cars? Yup. One of these days, I really should spend however long it takes, sitting in the truck with user manual in hand, to figure out all the things. Like, how to adjust the rear-view mirror.

    • My experiences with the all-window opening remote got featured on Sarah Hoyt’s blog the other day. It would have been nice if Honda had a means of disabling such. It was documented in the manual. All 627 pages of it.

      My money program got an update, and they decided that one function (that I don’t use) needed two ways to invoke it as a keyboard shortcut. The alternate is the primary for a function that I actually use, and the program gets upset when the shortcut is invoked. Due to a longstanding bug in some upstream code, I have to tweak the settings every time I use the program. Gee, it worked all right in the old version. Thanks, guys.

    • It’s a persistent problem with software of every color, creed, and nation of origin.

      Rules for Programmers, #24: If your program will have a user, then involve them in development.

      See also #27: If the user can’t use what you’ve written, you’ve failed.

      And #29: Users are not the enemy.

      • I’ve actually encountered some software that did what it was supposed to, in a reasonably obvious way. But… it seems that most commercial software is written (and/or has features dictated) by people who don’t use it themselves, or who don’t use it in the obvious way.
        And sometimes bizarre omissions will turn up. I was recently editing a document in LibreOffice. Much information in this document is organized as tables – just text-formatting tables, not embedded spreadsheets or any such. I needed to move some table entries (contiguous groups of rows, with some rows containing merged or split cells) up or down. There’s no provision for moving table rows. Users have been asking about this for many years, and the only answer is to reproduce the table structure at the destination and then copy the contents. Grrrrrr. (I suppose one could save and close the document, unpack it, edit the XML, and repack it. At the XML level, it should be a simple operation.)
        Then there are applications that start out small and straightforward, but then gain features for all occasions, with the features often ill-documented and sometimes interacting in truly arcane ways. (I recently had to disable a couple of little-used browser extensions because one or the other of them was interfering with the latest version of some commonly-used Javascript library.)

  3. Do take the time to write the manufacturer of your “new and improved” item explaining that it isn’t and you’ll be looking for a replacement for their product if the original version becomes unavailable. I’ve found they do pay attention.

  4. My nadir of design was the pickup truck where I needed a step ladder to reach the oil dipstick. I am 5′ 6″, average height for an American woman.
    (Hint: Use a large pair of scissors for recalcitrant plastic packaging. Safer than a knife.)

    • The car companies have become actively hostile to customers doing even basic maintenance on the car they brought.
      Part of it, is so that their service departments make a profit (Especially given how much of their time is spent fixing recalls.)
      But I think the greater reason is that they’ve pretty much consolidated the used car market, and want to have the maintenance records on file.
      As noted during the bailout, they’ve become financial organizations with manufacturing divisions.

      In both cars we currently own, It’s impossible to change our own oil without access to a pit or a hoist.
      Changing the serpentine on my car required removing the front end. With proprietary tools.
      The Honda we had a few years back, even had a battery shield held in place with proprietary fasteners that kept you changing the battery, or even accessing the terminals. (Fortunately, I was able to bend out of the way enough to jump the darned thing when I needed to. It’s good to have a pry bar handy.)

    • Aviation snips, not scissors. Scissors will handle nostthings, but as the price goes up the packaging grows more ‘protective’.

      • Or you could do like a YouTube character and open difficult packaging with a circular saw, waterjet cutter, CO2 laser, etc.; not exactly efficient, nor safe, but entertaining – kind of like Calvin inventing a robot to clean his room for him, or Mark Rober inventing robots to play arcade games for him.

    • I have a scar where I used the wrong knife on such packaging. The hand surgeon said I didn’t quite sever the tendon. I think he was a bit ticked off on having to do the job on Saturday; unbuffered Lidocaine made me want to bounce off the ceiling when he applied it. (Buffered Lidocaine is a thing, pretty tolerable; I had a few visits to that ER mumble decades ago.)

  5. “New and Improved”, “Version Update,” or anything new from Microsoft are red flags that you aren’t going to have a good day. I recently had a conversation lamenting the loss of Wordstar and the universal adoption of MS Word. A simple word processor that worked and had no delusions of grandeur replaced by a bloated do a bit of everything but nothing really well, with auto corrupt thrown in for added aggravation.

    • Has anybody else noticed the Grammar checkers developing a hatred of punctuation?

      Yes, I put a comma in front of a conjunction in a compound sentence. Stop flagging it. It’s not even an Oxford comma.

      • I don’t pay much attention to grammar checkers, but I’ve noticed that spelling checkers are getting dumbed down. A lot of perfectly good, if slightly outdated, vocabulary has been disappearing from the Newspeak Spelling Dictionary.

    • Wordstar was going down the bloat road back in the PC-AT days. I can’t recall if they changed the keyboard shortcuts, but they did try a New Coke version that went over about as well. When I started with Win 3.1, I switched to the Lotus office suite.

      Now I use Libre Office on Linux. No Microsoft in the house.

  6. And here I thought it was just me thinking all the “new and improved ” wasn’t improved at all, just changed to save money and increase profits. Oh, plus 1 on the use of kitchen shears to open packages.

  7. Not “new and improved,” but I am apparently the height for which commercial air travel is optimized. Perhaps at the lower end: another inch or two would make it easier to get luggage into the overhead compartment without requiring more leg room.

    I’m not quite 5’2″. This is probably not the best height to optimize for.

  8. But but… The “New and Improved Products” were approved by Experts!

    You must always agree with the Experts! [Very Very Big Evil Grin]

  9. I always keep an eye out for clothing with actual pockets. Not just pretty pockets, which may or may not have a slight pouch that claims to be a pocket behind them.

  10. A few years ago, within a period of six months, every brand of salt & vinegar potato chips sold in major grocery stores added lactose. This came as quite a rude shock to those of us who are lactose intolerant. You don’t expect these items (primary ingredients: potato, oil, salt, vinegar) to be a dairy product.

    • No, you don’t. I was looking for snacks that all my coworkers could eat without trouble, and was amazed by all the things that have dairy and corn sugar added. I’m not sure why turkey meat sticks need dairy solids.

      • Oh, yes… my wife has an interesting variety of food-related medical issues, so there’s a long list of ingredients to watch out for. Basically, all mass-market processed foods are Right Out, and even a lot of “simple” / “natural” / “healthy” products have things one wouldn’t expect from the name and description.
        (Quite a variety of things can sneak in under “natural flavorings”. As for me… well, almost anything with “fragrance” in the ingredients needs to be kept downwind; I don’t know what specific volatile organic compounds trigger an instant headache, but it’s not like they’re identified on labels anyway. The older dry-erase markers were a big problem, as is the laundry-products aisle, the area within 50 feet of any scented-candle emporium, the “essential oils” / “aromatherapy” zone at Whole Foods, and the entirety of some craft stores. And how come I now have to look around for unscented friggin’ trash bags? Why does canned bug spray have added stench? Do these things start out as marketing gimmicks, and then somehow become the default? Grumble, grumble, Kipling, “Very Many People”, git off my weald….)

  11. One of my little town’s most iconic snack food manufacturers got bought out by out of town investors who changed recipes left and right. I heard from a coworker that he called the 800 number on the wrapper in order to ask about the change in flavor of one of their offerings. The perky CSR at the other end proudly said ‘Oh, we took out the lard!’ Said coworker was a curmudgeon who not only told the CSR that he was never buying their products again, he wrote an actual letter to the head of the organization. They sent a cockroach letter and a fistful of coupons which he never used.
    Stay safe

  12. I have a 2004 Honda Element with just the right amount of tech. If I open the door with the key in the ignition it fast-beeps at me. Slower set of beeps if I open the door with the lights on and the engine turned off. A satisfying snap when I push the remote to lock/unlock the car, and if I get OCD and push lock a second time in a few seconds, a short honk to reassure me. Of course it beeps if I start the car without my seatbelt on, but it will stop after 10 seconds if I really insist. The only “improvement” I might want is a backup camera, and maybe I’ll get an aftermarket one.

    I’ve been a software developer for decades, and I try to teach my colleagues how to develop software that the user needs. See: “I don’t believe that no one wants to know.”

  13. I was reminded today of another one….
    Do the designers of shopping carts / trolleys / buggies ever go shopping? I’m often shopping for a mixture of items: some much too big for a handbasket, and some (e.g.: butter, canned smoked trout, pipe fittings) small enough to escape between the bars of a standard wire baskety wheely thing. Sometimes I can address this by putting a handbasket, with its finer mesh, in the upper compartment of a full-sized cart, but not all stores offer handbaskets that will fit thus.
    See also: trying to carry a stack of mixed-size packages on a handtruck.

    • You do wonder, sometimes. A bit like the “uses 30% less material” plastic bags that won’t hold canned goods unless you double bag them. Someone never bought four cans of beans, a package of bacon, and two onions.

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