User Error

Be mindful.

Not long ago I received a pre-loaded debit card as a thank you. In days past we received checks and had to go to the bank (at least until technology improved so we could take pictures of the checks as we deposited them). All in all, cards are better.

After a couple of massive data breeches and the fact the Europe used chips in their cards, chips became de rigueur. But not on thank-you cards.

You can see where this is going.

I went to my favorite grocer and bought a few things happily chatting with the cashier as she scanned my goods and my (chipless) card sat in the slot for cards. Doing nothing.

My items safely packed, the cashier looked at me and smiled. This is normally the clue I’ve done something wrong. I looked down and saw an error message on the card reader. I think it said Bad Read which I found funny as I’ve had a few of them lately. Re-insert card. No luck. I looked down again and yes, re-inserted the card for the third pointless attempt. Nada.

After another message (I think this one said, “Bad Customer“) I looked at the card again and thought, what’s wrong with this chip? Stupid card, mumble, uh, – oh – it’s chipless. I grinned, swiped the card and smiled at the cashier as everything then worked fine.

“It was a user error,” I said to her, “I was the user.” She laughed and laughed – she knew exactly what I meant. I collected my items and walked home (I live in the city for a reason) thinking about how many times we keep trying things over and over when they’re not working.

At work I’ve noticed this through the years. We yell a little louder, pound our hands on the table for emphasis and in general make people feel miserable as we try to get more results than we can expect out of bad process, practice and tools. We don’t stop to examine if people can actually get us what we want with the systems we use, we just exhort or exhaust them more.

And then wonder why they burn out, quit and leave us. People don’t quit companies you know, they quit bosses.

The next time something doesn’t work, goes wrong, gives you bad results, etc., resist the temptation to reflexively double down and just try harder, whether its something you’re working on or worse, something you have the team engaged in. Check yourself. Think about the goal and the process and the tools and ask yourself if you really have everything you need.

A little user error can be helpful for getting us to rethink our approach. Just be sure a little user error doesn’t become a lot of frustration by asking people to do what cannot be done without a systemic change.

What was that Einstein said about doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result?




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