Don't call me stupid

Many people who encounter problems with a site tend to blame themselves and not the site.” This insight is just one of the many reasons I love the work of Steve Krug, whose book Don’t Make Me Think! opened my eyes to the concept of usability.

It’s true. When something doesn’t work, there’s a tendency to feel stupid, or to feel stressed about having a bad experience, without really looking at why. We put up with feeling bad and we tend not to say “Hey, I’m feeling frustrated and useless because of a set of decisions that someone (or a whole organisation) made.

I like to blog about usability failures in real life because I think the whole area of real-life usability should be discussed, reported and blogged more. I want to talk about signage, about automatic doors, about what it’s like reporting a minor crime to the police. Of course I’m still very much interested in usability as it applies to websites and software, which is why I did an OGN talk urging geeks to understand the Luddite perspective.

So my brain is primed to spot usability problems, to challenge the narrative that I’m the stupid one, to argue with confidence for a more user-focused approach to – well, to almost everything. But even then, I still have a reflex response that says “I’m stupid.” When I get lost in my home town, when a software update breaks things on my computer and I can’t fix them, when I can’t open a cereal packet, I feel stupid. I feel as if I’m not competent enough to belong in the adult world. (Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I’m almost certainly dyspraxic, but I’ve never been diagnosed and I grew up in the Eighties when teachers thought that anyone who couldn’t read a map or catch a ball was – you guessed it – stupid.)

But I have an underlying confidence in my own intelligence, and I’m fully aware that comes from my privilege: a middle-class background with loving, supportive parents and a degree from the best university in the country (sorry, Cambridge). I want to use that privilege, and the confidence that comes from it, to challenge situations in which 99% of people would just feel stupid without ever wondering why. The Oxford degree makes me feel more confident asking for directions, asking for help, saying “I don’t understand,” saying “That’s a confusing way of putting it,” saying “I had trouble opening the packet.”

As I do it, of course, the voice in my head is still saying “You’re stupid.” But I use that voice to fuel my anger, and that anger helps me make my point forcefully.

But every now and then the voice saying “You’re stupid” is coming from outside my head. Recently someone called Adam commented on my blog post about Nationwide internet banking. His comments are actually an excellent example of the kind of thing that runs through our heads when things go wrong, the kind of negative blather that stops us speaking up about poor usability. So rather than just trying to ignore it and in the process internalising some of what he says, I’m going to respond to Adam’s comments point by point.

I stumbled across this blog post accidentally and would just like to point out that this is, in my opinion, a very unfair description of Nationwide's Internet Banking service. Setting up access is really easy and logging on is not as difficult as you make it sound. Why it took you 6 months I don't know!

Oh God! He’s right! It was easy and I’m just so stupid and I must be the biggest idiot in the world for taking six months over it!

Actually, no. I’ve just re-read the blog post and I think it’s a very accurate description of the user experience for Nationwide’s internet banking service. My biggest problem with what I wrote is that it’s so long and detailed that I think it must surely be boring for the reader. I’ve explained precisely why setting up access and logging on were so difficult for me.

Adam makes it sound as if the six months was a period in which I was learning how to use the internet banking, because I was so slow and stupid I just needed that long. Actually, I never did get to use it, because the system was fundamentally broken and I realised later that I would never be able to do what I had expected from internet banking. It doesn’t really matter if it took me six days, six weeks or six years to work that out; the point is, the system was broken and I would never, ever be able to use it for what I wanted, however clever I was.

Memorable data is something YOU are asked for when setting it up. YOU are asked to provide a name, place and date that is meaningful to you, one of which is required to login. The customer number and passcode are both sent in separate letters clearly stating that that is what they are. After requesting Internet Banking access and then having these pieces of information requested of you should not be a shock!

No. As the post makes clear, you are not asked for any of this until you realise that setting up your bank account is not the same thing as setting up internet banking. As the post also makes clear, there are no prompts from Nationwide, either online or in real life, to tell the user you need to register separately for internet banking. You get a leaflet when you open an account, but the leaflet copy is written with the assumption that you’ve already registered for internet banking - even though you’re given the leaflet just after opening your bank account at the branch, so there’s absolutely no way you could have already registered for internet banking at that point because registration won’t work without an account.

Because I didn’t know I needed to register, I thought the customer number was the same thing as the account number, and I thought the memorable data requested to log on to internet banking was the same thing as the memorable data I gave when I set up the bank account. I simply had no clue, and there were no prompts to tell me otherwise. I kept going back to the instruction leaflet for guidance, but there was no mention whatsoever of the requirement to register. I would be absolutely astonished if I was the first ever user to make this mistake. I think I’m almost certainly in the majority here.

I spotted the “Register for Service” button (dimly visible in the first screenshot on that blog post), but because I thought I’d already registered I didn’t bother clicking on it. It took me ages to work it out and I think the fact that I did, in the absence of any clear signposting, is evidence of my intelligence and perseverance.

As for the problems you had with the card reader, I must say that you appear to manage to use a computer which is a much more complex piece of technology, so I don't know why you had a problem.

The thing is, Adam... my computer actually works.

It doesn't require any 'setting up'. When you are required to use it, the website provides you with exact instructions on the buttons you have to press.

Yes. And I followed the instructions, over and over again. Like a little eager-to-please lab monkey, I followed those instructions and I pressed those buttons and I re-read the instructions and I pressed the buttons some more and I tried and tried and it still didn’t work, and I felt upset, so I took a break and then I came back and read them again and tried and tried some more, pressing buttons and pressing buttons and pressing buttons. But nothing happened because the card reader Did. Not. Work.

There is nothing broken about the card reader. If you don't understand the concept of two-factor authentication I suggest you google it and learn about what it is you are blogging about!

I can honestly say that I’ve tried to use it, in good faith, and it doesn’t work. From my point of view, it’s broken. I’m the user. I’m telling you it’s not working for me. Don’t tell me it’s not broken; ask me what’s wrong and then fix it so it’s not broken for me any more.

For the record, I understand the concept of two-factor authentication perfectly well. This does not change my view that card readers are security theatre, and that broken card readers are security theatre which actively damages the user experience. But I do enjoy the assumption that any criticism of a given two-factor authentication system must mean I don’t understand the concept of two-factor authentication.

It would appear that your problems stem mainly from an inability to read letters and follow instructions. If you would like assistance with using Internet Banking please let me know, I'd be happy to put you right.

So I’m stupid... but you can help me? Oh, thanks, Adam! That’s so sweet of you! There is nothing women on the internet like more than a man who can come along and explain, free of charge, why they’re wrong about everything. The offer of help with Nationwide’s internet banking system is particularly generous in light of the fact that I closed my Nationwide account months ago and have no need to use their internet banking ever again. Still, a one-to-one tutorial from you would be very useful just in case some terrible disease wipes out every other current account provider in the UK and I’m forced to return to Nationwide.

But wait! Since I suffer from an inability to read letters and follow instructions, how will I follow your instructions, dear Adam? Your hard work would be in vain! I must regretfully conclude that I am too stupid to be worthy of your help. But I can tell you that your strategy of trying to shut me up by insulting me works just as well as Nationwide’s internet banking.


I'm with you on this one. It's not up to the user to make sense of the system, it's up to the designer to make a system easy to use. Of course there are always the minority of people who think in a slightly different way, but by the sounds of it you applied logic, and didn't get a response. This can only mean that you were not given the right cues. I felt very similarly about the HMRC website/government gateway/SA Tax return system. It was enough to make me consider just sending them all the additional cash I had earned freelancing, because it seriously wasn't worth the pain of having to understand such a sadistically designed process. I am sure it made sense to them...

" It's not up to the user to make sense of the system, it's up to the designer to make a system easy to use." Absolutely! I also agree with you re: HMRC's online systems. It gets easier every year but only because you as the user are adapting to work around the failures, not because it's actually improving. And the only time I've been asked for feedback, it turned out to be about whether the person I spoke to on the phone was friendly enough. Another example of businesses focusing too much on "customer service" and not enough on the user experience as a whole.