World Usability Day

by Yule Heibel on November 6, 2005

I had no idea that last Thursday (Nov.3) was World Usability Day. Hopping around on (comparing who links to what I link to), I found the Nov.1 BBC article that alerted me to this startling tid-bit.

Belatedly (in honour of the day), let me quote from Donald Norman’s brilliant The Design of Everyday Things, which articulates all that is wrong with every crappy curriculum I’ve ever come across, either as a student or as a parent of kids who are dealing with crappy curricula (particularly math-based curricula). Norman is at pains (just like the World Usability Day) to make people understand that if something doesn’t work for you, it isn’t necessarily your fault. It might be bad user-interface and shitty design. Can’t figure out how to use that “hold” button on the phone? Ran into the door because it was unclear which way it was supposed to open? Crashed your computer? It might not be the case that you are inherently klutzy. It’s equally likely that you’ve smacked up into poor design.

Having trouble comprehending the theories in your math course? Gee… are you really that stupid, or might it be the case that your teacher is a dork who is using a totally poor excuse of a curriculum?

Extrapolating from technology, Norman’s “declaration of usability” also has some interesting things to say about curricula and how we blame ourselves when we fail to learn the professed outcomes:

Earlier I suggested that people have a tendency to blame themselves for difficulties with technology. (…) [Norman fleshes out the complexities that actually underlie this tendency, then continues:]

It seems natural for people to blame their own misfortunes on the environment [i.e., their surroundings]. It seems equally natural to blame other people’s misfortunes on their personalities. Just the opposite attribution, by the way, is made when things go well. When things go right, people credit their own forceful personalities and intelligence: “I really did a good job today; no wonder we finished the project so well.” The onlookers do the reverse. When they see things going well for somene else, they credit the environment: “Joan really was lucky today; she just happened to be standing there when the boss came by, so she got all the credit for the project work. Some people have all the luck.”

In all cases, whether a person is inappropriately accepting blame for the inability to work simple ojects or attributing behavior to environment or personality, a faulty mental model is at work. [From pp.40-42]

Norman then elaborates that the phenomenon of learned helplessness could explain the self-blame, but he goes on to emphasise that taught helplessness is the driving force, which, in turn, is driven by bad design:

Do the common technology and mathematics phobias result from a kind of learned helplessness? Could a few instances of failure in what appear to be straightforward situations generalize to every technological object, every mathematics problem? Perhaps. In fact, the design of everyday things (and the design of mathematics courses) seems almost guaranteed to cause this. We could call this phenomenon taught helplessness.

With badly designed objects — constructed to as to lead to misunderstanding — faulty mental models, and poor feedback, no wonder people feel guilty when they have trouble using objects, especially when they perceive (even if incorrectly) that nobody else is having the same problems.

[Norman here refers again to the fact that most people silently blame themselves and don’t complain loudly if they don’t get something, which in turn leads to the perception that no one is actually having trouble, i.e., that others are “getting” it…]

Or consider the normal mathematics curriculum, which continues relentlessly on its way, each new lesson assuming full knowledge and understanding of all that has passed before. Even though each point may be simple, once you fall behind it is hard to catch up. The result: mathematics phobia. Not because the material is difficult, but because it is taught so that difficulty in one stage hinders further progress. The problem is that once failure starts, it soon generalizes by self-blame to all of mathematics. Similar processes are at work with technology. The vicious cycle starts: if you fail at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do that task, you believe you can’t so you don’t even try. The result is that you can’t, just as you thought. You’re trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. [from pp. 42-43]

That analysis can be applied to certain badly designed math-based physics courses, as well. I just convinced my son to drop a Physics 11 course he had enrolled in because it was badly designed and taught by a “teacher” who seems convinced that meaningful feedback consists of “Wrong,” or if he felt particularly loquacious, of “Nope! Try again!” (These bits of non-response on an assignment were shared by another parent of a student in the same course.) The course is so hideously designed and the teacher so astonishingly absent (in terms of not being there, as a teacher capable of giving constructive feedback) that it was a clear case of “drop the course and pray you don’t run across this guy again.”

Usability. It’s an idea that should be extended to teachers, to what they do, and whether they do what they do well. Quite a few of them don’t, and would flunk Norman’s “usability” criteria, particularly given that they are the interface between the object (the curriculum) and the end-user (the student). It would be a kindness if they would deign to read this book (or even just think about usability), and adjust accordingly what heretofore they considered their teaching.

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