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Can't RTFM is there's no M to RTF!

Seth Godin: Blaming the user

In the early days of tech, the acronym of choice was, “Read the friggin manual.” If an engineer uttered RTFM in your direction, it meant that whatever happened was your fault. Tech is a powerful tool, and if you want to use it, do the work.

I can remember back that far, both to the utterance of that acronym and the existence of actual manuals for software. Those were needed for the simple reason that there often wasn’t enough space in the machine to have on-screen assistance.

Over time, as user interface became user experience, and as organizations sought to serve ever larger audiences, UX designers began to take responsibility for how people would engage with their websites and software.

For a while, if the software didn’t work for the intended user, that was the software’s fault. “We’ll make a better interface” is a much better motto because it puts the responsibility where it belongs.

But the overhang was still there. In many companies, “user error” was a problem for the user to fix. Organizations were pitching convenience and simplicity, but the moment the user made an error, the messages were curt, the wait on hold was long due to unusually heavy call volume, and if it didn’t work for you, well, we’ve got enough users, it’s cheaper for you to go somewhere else.

As someone who was a tech support person and system administrator in a previous role, I’ve encountered both ends of this. While the user interfaces did get better over time, the moment you encountered a situation that the software – or the developers – hadn’t anticipated, you’d invariably be handed a cryptic error message and left to figure out what the heck that meant.

As my colleague Mark Hurst points out, this contempt for the clueless user has been multiplied dramatically by the stock market. Now, many large companies have decided to use UX against their users, all of their users, by turning our experience with their websites and networks into one that serves their needs, not ours. It feels more convenient in the short run, perhaps even fun, but it’s designed to create lock-in, a permanent network effect and, as soon as practicable, a persistent source of cash flow.

As Mark Hurst puts it in the linked article, ‘UX is now “user exploitation.”’

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