Everyone Makes Mistakes

Napoleon + Interface Design

"Orders must not be easy to understand. They must be impossible to misunderstand." - Napoleon

I recently saw that quote get tweeted by Tim Ferris and it immediately crystallized some ideas I've been having about interface design.

My work involves building web sites and, more often than not, they include some sort of content management system so our client can maintain the site once we're finished. That means that we're not only developing an interface between the site and its visitors, but also one between the site and its administrators. Despite serving very different purposes, the biggest commonality is that everyone makes mistakes. Designing an interface could simply be an exercise in creating easy paths to accomplish goals but at its best it needs to address what happens when users stray from those paths. If you can anticipate the mistakes people could make then you can eliminate them. This adds a significant element of empathy to interface design. Users aren't going to think like you and you need to be able to be able to see past your own context to understand what someone without your training or experience might do.

Thankfully, this insight can be gained through testing or, even better, actually interacting with users. When I go to train our clients on the content management systems we've built them, I always come away having learned a great deal about potential pitfalls from the questions that get asked.

For Napoleon, misunderstood orders could cost lives. Today, misunderstood interfaces can cost money. A lot of money. Silicon.com recently wrote about how Expedia earned an extra $12 million a year by removing a confusing form field. The "Company" field in the checkout form was just ambiguous enough to confuse some users and cause them to incorrectly complete the form. Removing the field, and thus the misunderstanding, turned the form into one Napoleon would have approved of.