User Error

it crowd

A user error is an error made by the human user of a complex system, usually a computer system, in interacting with it. Related terms such as PEBCAK (Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard), ID-10T error (idiot error), and other similar phrases are also used as slang in technical circles with derogatory meaning. A highly popularized example of this is a user mistaking their CD-ROM tray for a cup holder, or a user looking for the ‘any key.’

This usage implies a lack of computer savvy, asserting that problems arising when using a device are the fault of the user. Critics of the term argue that the problems are caused instead by a device that doesn’t take into account human limitations and is thus designed in a way that induces errors.

Software engineer Joel Spolsky points out that users usually do not pay full attention to the computer system while using it: ‘If you sit down a group of average users with your program and ask them all to complete this task, then the more usable your program is, the higher the percentage of users that will be able to successfully create a web photo album. To be scientific about it, imagine 100 real world users. They are not necessarily familiar with computers. They have many diverse talents, but some of them distinctly do not have talents in the computer area. Some of them are being distracted while they try to use your program. The phone is ringing. WHAT? The baby is crying. WHAT? And the cat keeps jumping on the desk and batting around the mouse. I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’

Experts in interaction design such as Alan Cooper believe this concept puts blame in the wrong place, the user, instead of blaming the error-inducing design and its failure to take into account human limitations. Usability consultant Bruce ‘Tog’ Tognazzini describes an anecdote of Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams losing a significant amount of work of comment moderation at his blog due to a poorly constructed application that conveyed a wrong mental model, even though the user took explicit care to preserve the data. Designer Don Norman suggests changing the common technical attitude towards user error: ‘Don’t think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.’

There are a number of humorous euphemisms for human error. Some support technicians refer to it as ‘Biological Interface error.’ The networking administrators’ version is a ‘layer 8 issue’ (the standard networking model has only seven layers). Computing jargon refers to ‘wetware bugs’ as the user is considered part of the system, in a hardware/software/wetware layering. The automotive repair persons’ version is referring to the cause of a problem as a ‘faulty steering actuator,’ ‘loose nut between the steering wheel and the seat,’ or, more simply, ‘loose nut behind the wheel.’ Similarly, typewriter repair people used to refer to ‘a loose nut behind the keyboard’ or a ‘defective keyboard controller.’ The broadcast engineering or amateur radio version is referred to as a ‘short between the headphones.’ Another term used in public safety 2-way radio (i.e. police, fire, ambulance, etc.) is a ‘defective PTT button actuator.’ Another similar term used in the Military is ‘Operator Headspace and Timing issue’ or OHT.

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