The Fallacy of User Error

On Monday, Feb 3rd we all witnessed a glitch associated with a very high profile app--the counting of votes in the Iowa Caucuses.

In reading various news sources about the glitch, we've noticed all too many people blaming themselves for not being tech-savy. In a recent #HITsm tweetchat, a similar discussion emerged.

People are all too quick to blame themselves for not being able to use a poorly designed (or tested) system. We call this the "Fallacy of User Error."

Nothing can be further from the truth. There is nothing wrong with the users. It doesn't matter that they are not "tech-savy." A well-designed app should be built to match the mental model of it's users--tech savy or not!

Users shouldn't blame themselves because your app or system has a priority one bug. If your design causes the user to make mistakes, don't blame the users, learn from them and then design your system to match their way of working.

So why do the user's blame themselves? As usual, we turn to the theories of Psychology to guide our understanding of user interface issues, this time it is the concepts of Habituation and Learned Helplessness.

People are creatures of habit and will tend to try to do things that they have learned in one application (or website) when they encounter another. Their “mental model” will eventually guide their default interaction with your site. If the site or app isn't built to match that mental model, the users may be likely to make more errors.

Don't blame your users for a design flaw.

Some non-tech savy users may feel helpless and as a result many have learned to lean on their friends or co-workers for help. We recommend that these users follow a “cheat sheet” designed to help them 'get the job done' without ever branching off and exploring the interface.