On humans, computers and why users should not be blamed for struggling with computerized systems

Last week, I was in Dublin for the first week of an EIT Health Summer school (the second week will take place in Stockholm later in August). The event brought together PhD students and researchers from all over the world and from within a variety of different disciplines, among others psychology, software engineering, human factors, human-computer interaction as well as nursing. Looking back at those few, eventful days, I feel that one of the most enriching aspects of this experience was, for me, the “confrontation” with viewpoints on humans and technology that were sometimes very different from my own. This led me to reflect over what exactly my beliefs and values were when it comes to humans and their use of technology. In this post, I thus want share my view on the topic, explaining how I look at computers and humans, and what I believe this implies for designers of computerized systems such as myself.

Fundamentally, I see computers as powerful tools crafted by humans to support other humans in their tasks and, to some extent, “enhance” their abilities. Although I am aware of and respect the capabilities that have been brought into computers over time, I have a very high esteem for humans’ cognitive abilities and believe that, despite our so-called “limitations”, we are “superior” to computers. It feels a bit strange to be writing such a sentence, but I had the impression last week that some fields regard humans as the “weak link in the chain” when it comes to the interplay between humans and computers, suggesting that the former are to blame when something goes wrong – a perspective I fully and completely disagree with.

My main argument is that computers are not an independent entity existing in the world, but rather, as I wrote above, a human creation: we have the full power over their functioning and appearance. This means that if computers are ill suited to our needs or are not made to fit our characteristics (or “limitations” as we are used to calling them) as human beings, we can only blame our design of such technology – but certainly not those who use it (sometimes even against their will). I find it strange that we have no difficulty in recognizing this state of things when it comes to physical tools, but not when it comes to computers: if you were given shears to cut a piece of paper, would you blame yourself for not being able to do it well? Of course not! You would rightfully throw away the shears and request a more appropriate tool – for example scissors. Still looking at scissors, we realize that there are many different types of scissors, depending on who is meant to use them (adults, children, left-handed people, right-handed people etc.) and what they are meant to be used for (cutting paper, nails, hair etc.). After all, we cannot change the way we, humans, are built and function and, though our goals and activities do change and evolve to some extent, we cannot really modify them either (our basic needs do not change). What we can do however, is adapt our existing tools and create new ones in order to enable us to carry out what we need with (and sometimes despite of) the characteristics and abilities we possess. We seem to be able to do it quite well for physical tools, so why should we not be prepared to do the same when it comes to computers?

What I want to get at is that we designers cannot take ourselves out of the equation when assessing the interaction between humans and computers. We need to accept that if our fellow humans are not able to perform their tasks well using the computerized systems we have designed, we are the ones to blame – not they. Putting the blame on our users is a fallacy because they are not different from us, or rather, we are not different from them: we have the same limitations, and should not consider ourselves superior, or in any way more able, than the people using our systems. Instead of wondering “How can they not get it?”, we should ask ourselves “What did I not get?”. The computerized systems we design, despite being better than we are at certain tasks, in the end simply are the reflection of our understanding of our users’ characteristics, situation and needs. The fact is that this understanding is often fragmented, incomplete or inaccurate, which is why design is such a complex, challenging and exciting art.