When Technology Makes us Feel Incompetent

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I started composing this article 15 minutes after dealing with a half-hour–long telephone meeting over the worst cellphone connection I’ve had in years.

It made me feel incompetent, apologetic, and frustrated.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for me was nothing I tried was able to remedy the situation worked, despite my knowledge of wireless communications.

I have had a cell phone at my side continually since 1993, transitioning through analog and several flavors of digital.

As a ham radio operator, I have made single-sideband contacts from Palo Alto to Christchurch with nothing but a 100-watt radio, and enjoyed better fidelity and far fewer dropouts than did this call from San Mateo to San Francisco.

I can even find the sweet spots in Union Square that allow me to communicate with a repeater at Stanford with less than 300 milliwatts of power; again achieving a better connection than what I experienced yesterday.

None of these skills helped with that call.

  • I tried inside (all of the locations available to me had background music or silverware sounds that were unacceptable)
  • I tried outside (when I found shelter from the wind, I had to deal with multipath)
  • I tried with the iPhone 4 and its noise-canceling features (never good enough, but always the best)
  • Don’t even get me started on Bluetooth using a different codec from any cell phone network. Such a conversion fundamentally results in poor quality.
  • I tried using a decent boom headset with a noise-canceling mic (which was always worse than the iPhone alone)

I tested all of this in advance of the call with another party, and finally settled on just the iPhone outside as a quite acceptable combination. I had no reason to expect a significant problem, having made and taken more than enough calls from the area to know the coverage was good enough.

But on the actual call, I had to deal with about a 30% dropout rate of the other party’s voice. Any worse and I would have risked restarting the call. Nothing I tried to overcome the bad connection worked. Perhaps I should have restarted the call in hopes of getting a better connection, but it always felt like I was almost at the right place to get a good signal, so I didn’t.

I just had to take it on faith that if my transmission was that bad, the other party would have suggested calling back, but I could parse enough of their half of the conversation to keep going.

We have all been through this. Nothing about the experience was acceptable, and yet I had to continually remind myself that it was not my fault; knowing that the only way to assure a good connection on my half of the call would have been to ditch the wireless and use a landline.

After reflecting upon all of this afterwards, I remembered a conversation with one of the smartest technologists I know just after I lost my Scottevest sport coat to theft (complete with a handful of gadgets inside). It was just a simple statement on her part, “Don’t you hate the way it makes you feel incompetent, like it was your fault?”.

But this is the essence of what Alan Cooper and Don Norman have been trying to teach us about the design of anything. If the user of a piece of technology feels stupid or incompetent, it is almost surely the designer’s fault. It doesn’t matter if the technology is the composition window of a blogging tool or the doors of the very coffee shop that the people I was talking with must frequent.

The lesson of this post is to remind all of you fellow techies that a) you must not make your users feel the least bit incompetent, and b) that whenever you feel like the failure is your fault, there is a problem worth solving.

It doesn’t matter if nobody else is complaining about it out loud (trust me, most, if not all of them are silently bitching about it). If you can solve it well, you can probably find a large reward in doing so.

Why we put up with this—and why there is a path out—will be the topic of a post later this week.

(Fixing our modern telephone system is way beyond the scope of this humble blog, but a necessary task nonetheless.)

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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