Human Error, or Poor Design?

When errors are made, who do we blame? Do we blame the person who made the error, the external factors of the error, or both? Don Norman argues that errors are at the fault of the design, but are lessened not only by educating the user, but improving the quality of the design to be more intuitive. 

The blame of errors is always placed on the person involved when situations regarding everyday items or common knowledge are overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood. Recently, I learned that my boyfriend, in his 24 years of existence, does not know how to use a can opener. Surely, there have been many changes in the designs of can openers over the years, including automatic can openers that solely require the user to place the can in the correct spot with no elbow grease required. However, when I asked my boyfriend to open up a can of beans for me while I was busy with other facets of my meal prep, I came to realize when I heard pieces flying all over the floor that something had gone wrong. I came to find that the tiny pieces of my can opener had freed themselves all over my kitchen, and I was very confused, as my can opener is a pretty nice quality.


When I asked him what happened, he told me that the can opener didn’t work, which I knew wasn’t true because I have never had a problem using it, and I had used it to open up a can a few minutes prior. When I asked him to show me, I came to find that we both have different intuition when it comes to using this object; I typically hold the can opener similar to the way it is shown in the image above, perpendicular to the top of the can, whereas my boyfriend held it parallel to the top of the can, causing the opener not to pierce the metal of the can properly. 

Surely, I was confused as to why he held a can opener this way, but I learned that he grew up with an automatic can opener which opens cans similarly to the way he held my manual can opener. At first, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t know how to open it, but I gained some sense of empathy for him when I realized that by looking at the object, it is difficult to tell how to use it unless you already had prior knowledge of how it worked. 

This kind of error would be described by Don Norman as a “Knowledge-Based Mistake,” which is described by a situation where a user is consciously problem solving. Norman says, “knowledge-based behavior is required either when a person encounters an unknown situation, perhaps being asked to use some novel equipment, or even when doing a familiar task and things go wrong, leading to a novel, uninterpretable state.” I couldn’t tell you if I ever have looked at a manual on how to use a can opener, simply because I have been using the same type of one my whole life, and if one did come with my Kitchenaid opener, I most likely threw it out immediately. However, I would imagine that without practice or clear instructions, this everyday object might fall apart on anyone’s floor, solely on the observation that can openers are not intuitively designed objects.


Convenience, Constraints, and Knowing the Difference

Constraints are a part of everyday life: what matters most is the adaptability to those constraints so that they no longer are seen as major issues. Don Norman, author of “Design of Everyday Things”, talks about different types of constraints that we face all of the time. Physical attributes, cultural behaviors, and logical reasoning all come into play when we move through life, using different products and being around other people. At times, these constraints oppress our behavior, and other times they provide limitations that make sense despite the inconvenience.  

Sometimes constraints have their rhyme and reason. For example, there are times when you might leave your house on your way to work, walk all the way to your car, and realize you forgot your keys. Keys play a unique role because they allow you and only you to access whatever is behind the lock. However, the disadvantage comes into play when you, the person needing access, does not have your keys, and have to go back to either retrieve them or otherwise. Nevertheless, you would much rather have to walk and go find your keys, or obtain new keys if necessary, but you would much rather go through that trouble than having your car stolen or house entered by intruders.  

On the other hand, constraints are not always welcome, and it is usually the goal of design to curb these types of inconvenient restraints so that accessibility is more convenient for the user. These constraints also drive the invention of new products that assist people everyday to improve issues they may face. A constraint that I face all the time comes from food shopping; I live alone, and I live in a city where I sometimes have to park my car a block away from my house, so there is always a struggle getting all of my groceries to the car in one trip, unlocking my gate, and getting everything in my house without bags breaking. Using better bags helps to an extent, but if it’s more than just groceries, sometimes having more hands would be more convenient (can’t really get around that one). Living in a city comes with many constraints, and after living in Philadelphia for many years, I have adapted to many of them, but there will always be something because of so many factors.  

There will always be constraints, and there will always be evolution of adaptability. As innovators and designers, it is our job to make that bridge smaller so that things are more intuitive where they matter most, and for superficial or necessary reasons, creating ways to improve the lives of people so they have more time to do what they would like to do.  


Worldly and Thought-Based Knowledge

The ways that we interpret the world around us come from signifiers, as Don Norman has mentioned as a key point in his book, “The Design of Everyday Things.” The intelligent use of signifiers allows people to navigate technology, interactions, and the world around them with ease and as much convenience as possible. The information we receive comes from the world around us, the interpretation of it in our mind, or sometimes a combination of both.  

Knowledge in the world comes from obvious signifiers. We have the ability to know when things are turned on and off, when emails are sent and received, when we are sick or not, etc. Blatant cues allow us to understand what action to take, and sometimes how to do so. Newer cars are designed to allow the driver to understand how to operate the vehicle safely and effectively. When my check engine came on, I knew that it was time to tend to my car, whereas this was not always available in cars (although there may have been other obvious clues that a car needed to be fixed.) Norman says that with the advancement of technology, cues may become invisible, and while I knew my car needed to be serviced based on the light, it was not because my car was smoking or I was leaking gas, so I may not have known that my car was slowly developing a problem otherwise.  

Conversely, knowledge in the head comes from learned skills and remembering details. This knowledge is established by a deep understanding of the task at-hand, and being able to interpret these signifiers to make decisions that are more subjective. I have never been a skilled cook, but my current schedule is busy, so I’ve learned to prepare meals for the week in advance so that I don’t have to eat out constantly. I don’t want to eat the same thing every day, so I usually make four different dishes that I can switch out during the week. I’ve learned how to cook based on reading recipes, and a lot of trial and error. Cooked food does not have blatant signifiers, and I have learned a lot about timing based on visual cues from the food, tasting it for texture and flavor, and understanding the relationship between all of the components to know when it is “done.”  

However, it is possible to combine knowledge in the world and in the head. Every day, I leave work at exactly the same time, but my commute from work to school is always varied based on traffic on the major highways between my job and school. In order to efficiently travel, I use my GPS to determine which highway I get on first to get to school. I know the most direct route by experience, since I’ve lived in and around Philadelphia for over half of my life. However, I rely on signals from my GPS to let me know which way is fastest, and once I establish my route, I know where to go without the help of my GPS. In fact, I can even navigate uncommon ways because of my familiarity with the city. Therefore, this experience incorporates both knowledge in the world and in the head, because I am adaptable to the external factors outside of my control to get to school in as little time as necessary.  

As a designer with a user-centered approach, it is important to establish if what is being designed will be interpreted by the user as a worldly experience (meaning that it is more intuitive,) thinking-based experience, or both. Eventually as products become more intuitive with use, it is important to keep in mind the way that the user will think about their experience with learning how to use that product because it is a key factor in that user’s experience.  

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