I'm Thad.

Designing for Competent Users

A lot of engineering designs revolve around not allowing the user to “do dumb things”. Honestly, this is a great thing to do. There are many cases, especially in protective equipment that is a matter of life and death, where the potential for harm is far, far too high.

However, legalism and holding human life as the highest good rather than something divine will always drag human life down, rather than lifting it up. We need danger. We need to afford people the chance to be competent.

We know this in certain senses automatically- it’s why bureaucracy has a bad name. It’s the exercise of rules designed to weed out bad decisions to the point where not only are good decisions weeded out as well, but the costs required are astronomical. Moldbug once quipped that bureacracies are based on the assumption that all particpants are actively seeking to defraud it.

We know that societies work on trust. So why don’t we?

Why do we have that pesky word ‘user’? I really don’t think it’s apt. It puts in your head a sort of default, faceless being which could do any manner of stupid things. It isn’t a title. You don’t go around bestowing people or certifying ‘users’.

A more hopeful word might be ‘operator’. This implies that the person interacting with your apparatus should be competent, and can be trusted. Now, they might be a bad operator. That happens. But if you shift your mentality away from a ‘user’ (dumb, neutral-or-malificent, undignified) to a ‘bad operator’ (thinking (though wrong), good-intentioned, dignified but did their job wrong), you might start coming to their real level.