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Making People Feel Stupid: A Cardinal Sin in Design

People will go to great lengths and inconvenience to avoid appearing or feeling stupid. A great example of when design makes a user feel stupid comes from Alan Coopers 1999 book The Inmates are Running the Asylum on page 24. Cooper is talking about the keyless entry system on his car keys.
"The large button locks the car and simultaneously arms the alarm. Pressing the button a second time disarms the alarm and unlocks the car. There is also a second smaller button labeled 'Panic.' When you press it, the car emits a quiet warble for a few seconds. If you hold it down longer, the quiet warble is replaced by the full 100-decibel blasting of the car alarm, whooping, tweeting, yowling, and declaring to everyone within a half-mile that some dolt--me--has just done something execrably stupid. What's worse, after the alarm has been triggered, the little plastic device becomes functionally inert, and further pressing of either button does nothing. The only way to stop that honking announcement of my palpable stupidity is to walk to my frighteningly loud car, enduring withering stares from passersby, unlock the driver's door with the key, then insert the key into the ignition and twist it. It really makes me feel like an idiot. If my car merely got robbed it would make me feel violated and sad, but it wouldn't make be feel stupid."
This essentially happened to my wife over the weekend. The kids got in the car and were playing with the automatic locks while there were at a campsite up in the mountains. Nice and serene and quiet. Somehow, they triggered an alarm sound from the car. A car which doesn't even have an alarm system. My wife grabbed her keys and tried pressing all the buttons on the remote, but none of them turned off the sound. After three or four minutes, the alarm was still sounding. A camper came over from an adjacent site and knew to do a long-press on the panic button on the key fob. My wife had been planning to try to disconnect the battery, she was so flummoxed.

Bad design makes us feel bad and resent the people who foisted it upon us.


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