Last week an Icelandic freighter stranded while making its way out the Oslo Fjord. The following day one of Iceland’s largest newspapers declared in the leading headline: Captain admits to making a mistake.
The only constant in human computer interaction that you can count on is this: Humans make mistakes. Why it makes a lead headline is baffling. But it also typifies how people think about communication with complex devices. When something goes wrong it’s the human’s fault. Human error means that the system wasn’t at fault, it can be solved by flogging the human.
In many cases (I’m not maintaining it was the case here) this ‘human error’ can be traced back to flawed communication between the human and system the human is controlling. There are even those that maintain that there is no such thing as human error, only design error. When designing systems that are to be used by humans the designer has to include the human as a part of the design. And the human will make mistakes.
So plan for it, deal with it.
There are many ways you can help your users stay on the yellow brick road. You can make inappropriate options unavailable. You can have an undo function. You can ask the user to confirm his action before executing. You can make the flow of the task intuitive. Whatever you do it’s your responsibility as a designer.
This is not only important for us to realize as human computer interaction people. It is also important for the users themselves to know, and the organizations and legislators. Because we want to know when a human makes a mistake with our systems so that we can learn from it and stop making it happen.