The usability of imposter syndrome

Among the many mind blowing things I did today, I was slightly startled to find myself participating in a user experience test. But conferences are full of surprises and unexpected connections. Having a background in usability myself, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to pick holes in someone else’s software.

User experience tests are interesting. You get given a task – not a set of instructions, but a goal to complete – and set free on the system to see how you go about solving it. Is it easy or hard? Which features of the system help you, and which ones get in your way?

The User Experience guy who conducted the test, Craig, could not possibly have been nicer, and he went to great lengths to explain that it was the website on trial here, not me. “You can’t do anything wrong!” he told me. I was relaxed, and comfortable, and interested in the site. It looked like being a fun experience.

But an interesting thing happened. Despite a constant flow of reassurance and encouragement from Craig, I began to get stressed. There were… let me be tactful… some issues with the website. I couldn’t complete some of the tasks. If I’d been hooked up to any kind of physiological monitor you’d have seen my heart rate skyrocket. My breathing became rapid. I began to sweat.

Why? Because I couldn’t complete the tasks. Tasks that were a test of THE WEBSITE. Not of me. But a little voice inside my head started to say “I’m going to look stupid because I can’t figure this out.”

“Someone smarter would know that bit of jargon.”

“It’s probably staring me right in the face, but I just can’t see it. I’m so dumb.

Over and over Craig told me how helpful this was, how I was doing great, and how it was so useful to see the issues I had with it. He told me that they could never have figured out the problems without me. He was lovely. Honestly, you could not pick a nicer, less scary person to conduct the test. But because I was having a hard time using a website that I knew there were issues with, I was judging myself.


Right there.

That’s why usability matters.

Because when a piece of software is hard to use, crashes, or does something unexpected, even people with a PhD in usability blame themselves. People work with complex systems all the time – laptops, tablets, sound systems, even televisions. And in subtle (and not so subtle) ways those systems tell us that we are dumb. That we are too stupid to figure them out. That we make mistakes all the time.

As Katharine Frase pointed out, we try to learn to use fundamentally unusable systems, when those systems should actually be learning to work with us.

So next time you struggle with a piece of software, repeat after me: I’m not hopeless with computers. Computers are hopeless with me.



About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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