Some Problems Shouldn't Be Solved

I recently tried to register for an online account with the post office.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 3.10.49 PM

I did not succeed.

Ridiculous password requirements are a subset of a larger problem: computers make it possible to enforce ridiculous rules, and so those ridiculous rules are made. If I had to wait in line at the post office to see a clerk who would register me, how would they possibly enforce this? How much training would they have to have?

I'd hand them a word, they'd see if it fit and tell me, I would appeal if they rejected it. They'd call in someone from the back and we'd waste about 15 minutes trying to figure out what the rules actual are:

CLERK 1: Your password's got to be exactly 10 characters.

ME: I thought that meant at least 10.

CLERK 1: A little help!?!?

Clerk 2 emerges from the back

CLERK 1: Does "password need 10 characters" mean at least 10, or exactly 10?

CLERK 2: At least ten.

CLERK 1: Alright, well it doesn't matter, you didn't use a special character.

ME: I did, I used a caret.

CLERK 1: I don't think that's special.

ME: Come on, that's a special character.

CLERK 2: Not special enough.

ME: What about a pound sign?

CLERK 1: Special enough.

CLERK 2: I don't think that counts.

WOMAN IN LINE: Excuse me, I'm on my lunch break, and I just have one password to change, would —

CLERK 1: You'll be helped when it's your turn!

CLERK 2: How about a question mark?

ME: Good enough.

CLERK 1: Well then you need another character then, because a question mark is a special character, not a character.

ME: That's ridiculous, that totally—

CLERK 2: Not a character.

Computers make this kind of stupidity possible.

Let's say you're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down, and you see me, who happens to be a tortoise in this story, crawling toward you. You reach down, you ask me if I want to share some files with you. I try to click the button to share, but I can't, not without your help. But you're not helping. Why is that?


I know why you greyed it out: you wanted to let me share under some circumstances, and this is not one of them. This UI pattern is very widely and very justly loathed, but a better design only helps me if the reasons why sharing is disabled are sane.

Is sharing "blah" prohibited because it belongs to another user? That's simple, just tell me. But there's a decent chance it's the fault of my employer's enterprise groupware package with 4000 business rules added on. How do you tell me that I can't share it because it contains a file that has a naming scheme that matches with a pattern that when combined with another present pattern means that it's the output of program A, which when circumstance X happens, then means that if...

Again, think of how a person behind a desk would enforce that kind of rule system. They wouldn't, that's how.

Computers enable a certain kind of product micromanagement. Any complicated whim can be enforced fully and without question. "Well then," we think, "we'll just make the user do what we want them to." This is at the root of a lot of software sadness. Please, let's think before we make someone jump through a hoop: it takes less time to implement than it does to pass through it.

  • sbrk

    "A tortoise. What's that?"

    • Holden

      You know what a turtle is? Same thing.

    • A name

      Srsly have to be one of the stupidiest people on this planet.

      • Why post such drivel?

        Clearly "A name" has never heard of the Voight-Kampff test,
        which the blog and first two commenters are referencing:

      • mike

        "A name" definitely failed the test.

    • ian belt

      A tortoise is delicious.

      • Anonymous

        There's good eating on one of those.

  • Nadya

    Ironically your contact form hides the labels after clicking (bad practice) and the design creates a problem where none existed prior by making the form less accessible.

    For example, a user who uses tab to switch between fields might not read the entire form. So they enter their name, hit tab, and what are they supposed to enter? There is no longer a label. So they have to tab to the next box to re-establish the label and then shift+tab and enter their email address.

    This just happened to me and I found it funny.

    More on topic with your problem, I agree entirely. The funny thing about forcing certain character sets for passwords (or god forbid, an exact/minimum length) is that it makes the password LESS secure. Not MORE secure as intended.

    Also disabled buttons are the worst UI decision software (and worse that they have been extended to the web). An error message upon attempting to use the button that explains why the expected outcome didn't happen is much, much, much better. Even better still is telling the user before they click the button!

    An example being an incomplete web form. Instead of disabling the button until the form is complete, attempting to submit an incomplete form should prompt the user to enter the fields they missed. Better yet - if they leave a required field empty and move on in the form, a warning should show up stating the field is required.

    Anyways... cheers! I hope you make your contact form more accessible. 😉

  • I love this opinion! As a technical lead, I work with product owners to translate business requirements into engineering stories. We have many that fit your examples above. Sometimes the best features you can give to your customers are the ones you delete, simplify, or never implement.

  • Sean

    "Disabled buttons are the worst is decision"
    Oh I think you're not using your imagination. My favorite ui decision is the button that simply vanishes altogether- but only in specific circumstances which are undocumented. Give me a greyed out button any day.

    • NKT

      Sean is right.
      Imagine simply not being able to find the button because some idiot decided to turn it invisible for unknown reasons. How much more time would you spend searching through (likely modal) pop-up dialogues?