The Virtual Cyber Cudgel

by Gerald M. Weinberg

In 1977, Tom Gilb and I published a book called Humanized Input: Techniques for Reliable Keyed Input. We hoped to improve the pitiful state of input design for computer systems, and ten years later, we imagined we were beginning to see some improvement. On-line systems were coming into vogue, and we expected their use could only improve the interface between humans and computers.

Alas, though some systems improved, there’s been a steady decline, especially in those parts of systems where the average user has to communicate something exceptional to a computer. Clueless developers of the computer system “design” whatever sort of interaction pops into their minds, while the poor user of their system has to conform to these designs, or else. It’s like arrogant nobles assigning tasks to powerless peasants. It’s a one-sided conflictthe developer side side has all the weapons. while the users have to take their lumps and just grin and bear it.

But the Medieval world had its checks and balances, something we need in modern computing. In ancient Denmark, the laws of chivalry required that if a noble should ever duel with the peasant, the peasant had the right to choose the weapon. The nobles were trained in fancy weapons such as swords and dueling pistols, but the peasants had a preference for pitchforks and cudgels. As a result, any sensible noble went to great pains to settle disputes graciously with any peasant, no matter how gross and crude they might seem.

We need something like a cudgel to redress the balance between ordinary people and poorly crafted systems produced by thoughtless designers. Cudgels and pitchforks, however, could be found around any peasant household. Furthermore, there was a legitimate reason for them to be there. If the nobles wanted to eat, they could hardly outlaw pitchforks.

One way to fight the arrogance and insensitivity of computers is to use your own computer as your cudgel, but you don’t have to own a computer to be arrogant and insensitive. For those readers who lack a peasant’s pitchfork experience, I have catalogued a number of specific thrusts and countermoves. I’ve learned these tactics from the enemy, from the online and paper forms I’ve had to navigate to request support, report bugs, reconcile billing disputes, claim rebates, or register products.

1. Insist that any communication with you will have to go through your computer, and thus conform to the computer’s requirements, because “everyone knows that computers cannot be made to change in response to every trivial problem that people are having.”

2. The required information will have to go on a form, one copy of which you’ll supply upon written request on another form.

3. They will have to use the original formno copies, please. If they should make a mistake in following the simple and convenient rules, they may write another letter and request another form. Without the original form, “our computer might not be able to read it.”

4. Every piece of information requested on the form must be supplied. Nothing must be left blank, even when you already have that information recorded accurately in your computer’s files. To leave something blank would “require our computer to spend extra time accessing the information.”

5. Where information requested duplicates information already in our computer files it must be identical, character for character, including spaces. If someone asks you why it must be identical, you say that “our computer will be confused if it checks the information and finds differences.” If they ask why the information is needed, inasmuch as our computer is going to access the original in order to check, you reply that “the computer may decide not to check, and we can’t tell in advance which cases it might check.” (This is true by default because you don’t really have a computer.)

6. Every item you fill in on the form must adhere strictly to our specified format, otherwise reject the form. Don’t accept alternatives that might be clear to human beings, because “they will require extra coding steps.”

7. The specified formats must be chosen to be unfamiliar to people, such as,
a. Last name first, first name last
b. Fill in all leading zeros, the more the better
c. Year, day, month
d. Local phone exchange, number, then area code
e. Zip code, followed by street address, then state and city
f. Numbers in scientific notation
g. Binary coded numbers
(And, yes, believe it or not, I’ve encountered each of these cases.)

8. Because you can’t be certain that the formats in [7] are unnatural to people accustomed to working with computers, require that each time a similar item is needed, a different format is requested. For instance here are some variations in the dates I have had inflicted on me:
a. 2009 July 17
b. 17/7/09
c. 17/07/09
d. 17 VII 2009
e. 17-JUL-09
f. 7,17,09
g. July 17, 2009but be careful of this one, it’s almost understandable.

9. When numbers are needed, it’s best to have them be as long as possible. If they don’t have any long numbers, make up some. Since human memory is pretty reliable up to seven digits, it’s best to require at least 10 digits, but do not allow any internal punctuation. If you ask for 234-789-4001, they might get it right half the time, but 2347894001 will cut that percentage down to size. Also, every extra digit beyond 10 will pay huge dividends in erroneous forms, which can then be returned with rude notes implying inferior intellectual development. An effective technique is to pad out the number with large numbers of leading zeros, as in 00000002347894001. (How many zeros is that, anyway?)

10. If you can get away with it, use at least two pages, back-to-back, for paper forms. A second page gives lots of special possibilities, such as,
a. Information on the back that has to be copied onto the front, and vice versa.
b. Information on the back that’s needed to understand the items on the front, and vice versa. For instance the set of codes that are to be used on page 1 can be listed on page 2. This technique works well with pages on websites, too.
c. Consecutive pages should be printed on opposite sides of one very porous and translucent sheet of paper. This technique guarantees that material from the other side will show through when copying. It also allows ink to flow through from one side to the other. Naturally, you don’t allow pencil, and require both sides to be clear of extraneous material.

11. Because multipage forms allow copying from page to page, you have the opportunity to impose difficult copying tasks. For instance, on page 2 you can require copying the form number from page 1, just to make sure that “the two sides of the paper don’t get separated.” An appropriate form number is 1783562812354678-1A.

12. Limit names and addresses to 20 characters eachor 18 if you darebut do not allow truncation. If Daniela Schimmelpfennig complains, tell her she has no right to have a name that confuses computers. Suggest that she change her name to something more reasonable. Or, simply truncate her name in any way you like Daniel Schimmelp, for example.

13. When a limited field is required, allow far more space on the form than is allowed in the computer. For instance, if a number is limited to 12 digits, use a 13-digit space on the form. If possible, make no comment, but if your conscience bothers you, write an instruction saying, “For type A use leftmost 12 digits. For type B, use rightmost 12 digits.” Be sure there are several A’s and B’s on the form, thus creating doubt as to which is meant. This technique ensures that at least half of the forms will be wrong just as if you had given no instructions.

14. Where the required information is essentially unlimited in length, use a space that is patently too small. An excellent example is these instructions:
“Please explain your problem in your own words, giving all relevant information that might bear on our providing you with better service in the future.” Then limit the response to 40 characters and/or follow this instruction with a space no longer than three quarters of an inch.

15. If you can’t make the instructions actually contradictory, as suggested in [12], at least use sufficient jargon to ensure that they can’t be understood, as in [13]. If you do this well, the people using the form will feel like fools.

16. Jargon from [13] can be combined effectively with instructions given in the form of computer programs as in
“If the audit interval is greater than the contemplated discount, then enter the appropriate rate code from the conversion table on page 2 in place of the discount code, unless the audit interval falls within the operating system recovery. Or line 17 of page 2 will be left blank when following the instructions on that page under item”

17. When giving programmatic instructions, it is best to have at least one backward reference, such as (on line 5-1 on page 2), “If this figure is negative, change the value in line 17B., page 2 to zero.” Working in ink, this is sure to confuse, but just in case they have the sense to make a trial copy, include at least one cyclic reference. For instance, back on line 17B on page 2, you could say, “if this value is zero, change any negative value online 5.1, page 2, to positive.” (Notice the inconsistent notation: 5-1 in one place, 5.1 in another. Inconsistency always helps increase confusion.)

18. Set rigid deadlines for receipt of the form, and indicate that if the deadlines are missed, you cannot guarantee any particular date for a response. Then mail the blank forms so they arrive on the deadline date. (The next day is not as good as some people just give up in despair. It’s better if they try to meet impossible deadlines and spend much money on special postage.)

19. Naturally, the forms may not be folded, spindled, or mutilated in any way.

20. Following these rules when responding to cyber crud ought to equalize the odds a bit in the never ending battle of peasants against the nobles. But just in case the above 19 rules don’t quite convince them that you actually have a computer, here’s one more that’s sure to crush all the remaining resistance:
Make sure your form is 1 mm wider than the handy return envelope you provide.

A Word to Designers

Maybe next time you design one of these interfaces, you’ll take off your cloak of nobility and, for a few minutes at least, don the shabby rags of us poor peasants who are forced to use your product. You can do that, because, like me, you’ve also been on the peasant’s side more than you’d like.

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