The Scott Adams Meltdown: Anatomy of a Usability Disaster

Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini is a principal with the Nielsen Norman Group, the “dream team” firm specializing in human-computer interaction. Tog was lead designer at WebMD, the super-vertical start-up founded in February, 1996 by Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape.

He write a semi-periodical free webzine called AskTog and this is his amusing and interesting “post accident” evaluation report of what happened when Dilbert comic strip author Scott Adams permanently deleted a number of comments to his popular blog.

Just like an aircraft accident, it is never just one factor – but a combination of factors that contribute to an accident.  Tag actually identified five errors in this ‘usability’ accident:

  1. User Model didn’t reflect the Design Model
  2. Misleading metaphor
  3. Confirmation Dialogs Ambiguous
  4. Confirmation Substituted for Undo
  5. No Usability Evaluation

Per Tog, “the first four errors, in this case, are pretty fundamental, and no human-computer interaction designer should have made any of them. Still, errors, particularly in failing to recognize ambiguity, are going to creep in. Our safety net is user testing, something obviously missing in this case.”

He also goes on to state “it is never, ever useful in the design of software to blame the user. We know that almost all users are not going to even start a tutorial, let alone finish it. We know that no one but users new to computers RTFM. If they did RTFM, we wouldn’t even have such an initialism. In fact, the more experienced the user, the less likely they are to read the manual. (Power users don’t even read the instructions on the screen, let alone seek on-line help or a manual.) Experienced users only seek help when they become aware of a problem, and, in this case, a highly-experienced user did not become aware of the problem until it was already too late.”

Read the entire analysis of the accident at this link.


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