Beauty & Brains in Branding & Web

Are You Making Your Users Feel Stupid?

I usually take public transit to work, but once in a while I drive all the way in. I park at a public parking lot: $18 for the day. Pretty expensive, but it’s the closest one to the office. At least the self-pay machines are simple and convenient: slide in your credit card, hit the “max” button to pay for the full day, and place the receipt on the dashboard in your car. 30 seconds and you’re done.

Last month, the parking lot’s management replaced these machines with a new system which requires you to enter your license plate number. To quote my 3-year-old niece: “What the heck?” They replaced a simple interface of 2 buttons with one that had at least 40 buttons. Needless to say, I was baffled by this new interface and took well over a minute, with the help of an attendant, to get my receipt. I looked around at some other self-serve machines within the lot and saw that others were having similar frustrations.

Complicating the User Experience

Complicating the User Experience

I told the attendant that the new machines are not usable. He said nothing.

A couple of weeks later, I saw an old colleague in the parking lot at the self pay machine, clearly distraught. I walked up to greet him, but he quickly said “Can’t talk now, I’m late for work and these stupid machines are not working!”, and scooted off towards a parking attendant. After watching him run into the distance, I paid for my parking at the machine he’d just abandoned. Clearly, it was working. It was fully functional, but completely unusable.

What lessons can we, as service professionals, learn from this little story? Here are a few:

1. Keep it simple.

If you want people to use your software, keep your interfaces simple. This goes well beyond software of course. If you want people to understand you, keep your words simple. If you want people to follow you, keep your ideologies simple. The more logic you add, the more words you add, the more “ifs” and “buts” you add, the more people lose interest.

P.S.: Every time a person says “utilize” in favor of “use”, a rabbit dies.

2. Only ask essential questions.

There is absolutely no need for a parking machine to ask for my license plate number. Not only does filling in my license plate number considerably slow down the process of paying for parking, I was annoyed when thinking about why they are asking for the plate number. Are they going to look up my driving history? Are they collecting data on the daily average value of cars parked in the lot? Are they selling this information to a 3rd party advertising agency? My privacy could be invaded… or not. I don’t know, but the fact that they ask makes me have to worry about one more thing.

3. Know your users.

When people are parking downtown early in the morning, they want the payment process to be as quick and painless as possible. Maybe they are late for work. Maybe they had to deal with lots of traffic and are already frustrated. Maybe they got a speeding ticket on the way in. Maybe this is the first time parking downtown. Understanding your customers needs and wants is key if you want to deliver a superior experience. User experience (UX) designers often use personas to accomplish this goal. A persona is a fictional character that might be one of your customers. UX designers go into great detail when creating personas; including details like their job and salary, the size of their family, what they do on weekends, what type of movies they enjoy watching, what cuisine they prefer, etc. Putting these personas into stories involving your product can give you a good idea of how a user might react to things like accessibility, color, the tone of your copy, and the amount of information on your site. Repeating this process with 2 or 3 more personas, and you really get a feel for thinking about users first. How will Sally, a 23 year old medical student, feel about showing the form validation in a popup or inline? What about Chan, a 68 year old retired accountant? The more intimately knowledgeable we are of users, the better equipped we are to deliver favorable experiences.

4. Experiences matter. A lot.

Nobody wants to feel stupid. It’s frustrating, and when in it happens in public, it’s also embarrassing. It’s a feeling that we as humans desperately try to avoid. These pay machines were making its users feel stupid; most people will prefer another parking lot altogether to avoid embarrassment.  One negative experience is usually enough to detract a user from a second attempt. If one of your customers tweeted or posted on Facebook about the negative experience, you’ve likely lost several other potential customers as well.

In the Bollywood movie English Vinglish, a talented Indian lady travels alone to New York the help prepare for a relative’s wedding. However, it is her first time outside of India, and she barely knows any English. Here’s a poignant scene from the movie, the first few minutes of which illustrate a dramatically negative experience.

As we move onto our next project, we should ask ourselves: do we really know our users, or are we just guessing? Are we giving them what they want? Are we asking them unfair questions? Are we giving them the best experience we can, regardless of their background?

In the end, only the user knows how much each experience impacts their day to day lives, for better or for worse. However, we need to make every conscious effort to make sure our product lands on the “better” side of the scale.

Share this!
About Asrar

Asrar is an integral part of the development team at HTC, transforming concepts and ideas into functional applications. He is a creative web developer who can write robust code and is also gifted with a flair for design. Guided by the principles of software engineering and user experience, he strives to develop web and mobile apps that not only have awesome functionality, but are a pleasure to use as well. Born and raised in Montreal, you can be sure that when he’s not programming, he’s either playing hockey, watching hockey, reading about hockey, talking about hockey, or updating his fantasy hockey lineup. He can be reached at asrar[at] or on Twitter at @asrar_ca.


  1. Nice post… hopefully more developers and businesses utilize what you’ve said (yeah, I utilized the word “utilize” – two bunnies down!) in order to better reach customers and offer better services.

Speak Your Mind