Give the end user some credit, please

It's time to have a chat about systems that don't work. I don't do a lot of systems integration myself but as an end user I do get a lot of systems inflicted upon me. Two in particular stand out as being good examples of how to stuff things up for the end user.

It’s time to have a chat about systems that don’t work. I don’t do a lot of systems integration myself but as an end user I do get a lot of systems inflicted upon me. Two in particular stand out as being good examples of how to stuff things up for the end user.

Have you ever parked your car in one of Auckland’s many multi-storey carparks? They’re amazing. I try not to park in central Auckland because I’m not made of money, but when I do I’m constantly baffled by what they want me to do.

There’s a new carpark, barely a year old, that requires us drivers to stop at a barrier arm, take a coin thing, drive on about a metre, give the coin thing to a man in the booth who then gives you a ticket, and only then you can park your car.

There are levels and half levels and stairs marked “Exit” that you can’t use. The only way to go back up one floor to the real exit is via the lift, which tends to get a tad busy at 8.15 in the morning. Oh, and it closes at 8pm at night — which means a $30 bonus for whichever security guard you get to open the damn door for you when you’re too late.

The other carpark I use is even better. I arrived, found all these empty floors, parked my car and wandered down to the booth to pay my “early-bird parking”.

“Can’t you read? You have to pay on the 10th floor,” snapped the troll behind the bulletproof glass. I explained that yes I could read but there was no sign.

“Yes, there is. Right there,” and she pointed to a sign next to her window.

Now, don’t get me wrong — the sign was there. But how on earth was I supposed to read that from my car? So I trudged back up to my car, moved it up to the roof where I found a man sitting on the bumper of his station wagon, taking tickets and money off drivers and giving them different tickets and change. What a really, really good system, I thought as I ran him over repeatedly before pushing his car and mine off the roof and into traffic below. Now I understand the bulletproof glass.

Some carparks are restricted by size or location or whatever but come on. How hard is it? People arrive with one purpose — they want to leave their cars behind. You have space for them to leave their cars — now all you need to do is sort out taking money off them in an efficient manner.

The other system I’ve been knee deep in is the Massey University enrolment system. I’ve been trying to enrol in a distance learning course. Yes, I’ve always wanted to be an accountant — the thought of working in an industry where “creative” is a dirty word just appeals to me somehow. I’d like to sign up for a course, but the forms are unbelievably stupidly arrogantly difficult and pointless. Massey knows this — there’s a friendly note pinned to the front of the pack, and by friendly I mean patronising, saying “we know that getting through all these forms and procedures can be tricky. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need to — the best time to sort out problems is right at the start!” That’s their exclamation mark, by the way.

How wrong can you be? The best time to sort out problems is when you first spot them. If you know your forms are difficult to fill out change them. I only wanted to sign up for a single paper, not a doctoral degree in oceanography. Why do they want to know my nationality, my previous tertiary education, my next of kin for crying out loud? I’m doing all this from home — if I pop my clogs, my next of kin will probably be informing Massey, not the other way round.

So please, if you find yourself working on a management system, be it paper-based or IT, try to look at it from the end user’s point of view. They might be new to the business or have years of experience at similar systems. They might be learned or a beginner but whatever the case, treat them as grown ups and they’ll respond accordingly.

Otherwise, beware falling Hondas.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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