Won’t someone please think of the humans?

Classic movies are a wondrous window into a bygone era. They ordered beer at drive throughs, smoked in the office, and didn’t dial phone numbers.

When someone wanted to reach Elizabeth Taylor, “The most desirable woman in town” they had only to ask the operator for “Butterfield 8”.

As more and more phone numbers were created, those numbers got more complicated.  Lucy and Ricky Ricardo could be reached at “Murray Hill 5-9975”, which is a bit more of a mouthful.

Eventually, people came to the conclusion that this system was not going to scale very well so Bell decided to introduce the future of telephony with “All-Number Calling”.  No names.  Just digits.

Enter the “Anti Digit Dialing League” which fought a short-lived and unsuccessful struggle against the horrors of this “creeping numeralism”.

In their manifesto “Phones are for People” they argued

Engineers have a terrible intellectual weakness.  ‘If it fits the machine,’ they say, ‘then it ought to fit people.‘  This is something that bothers me very much: absentmindedness about people.”

They advocated small forms of civil protest:

“Interpreting the area code and seven digits as one huge number, they place calls by saying, “Operator, give me S.I. Hayakawa at four billion, one hundred fifty-five million, eight hundred forty-two thousand, three hundred and one.” Growls Chapter Leader Frederick Litto, “If they want digits, we’ll give them digits.”

Well,they lost that fight, but only temporarily as it turns out.

Fifty years later, not many people remember the actual digits they need to phone a friend.  Instead, they store contact information in their cell phone, or simply ask Google, Siri, or Alexa to dial it for them.

Phones it seems, are indeed for people.

The early days of the internet evolved in the opposite direction.  When I first started using the internet in the 90’s, we had to type in actual 12 digit IP addresses, like an animal (or like a machine?).  Pretty quickly though, domain names were invented and now, you can just visit authenticInsight.com rather than remembering the IP address ( if you’re interested).

These seem like obvious evolutions today but they weren’t at the time. Like most good design, it looks like “common sense” once someone has thought of it.

I encounter this issue in many of the products that I work on.  The mentality in many organizations is, to quote the Anti-Digit folks: “If it fits the machine, then it ought to fit people”. This is especially true in engineering driven organizations, which pretty much describes most tech companies.

In one project, we were advising our client on the user experience design of a very complex product. One of the engineers explained their current approach: “If it’s coming from the database we display it as a dropdown list, and if it’s dynamically created, we display it as checkboxes.”

“If it fits the machine, then it ought to fit people”

This type of approach is guaranteed to create UIs that are difficult to use, confusing, and disorienting.  I wish I could say that this was an unusual exception, but it isn’t.

The right approach is to think about the human and the task they are trying to accomplish first.

Rather than having the database determine whether users are seeing checkboxes or dropdowns, work the other way around.  First decide which one is the best choice for a particular activity and only then decide on the data model that will support it.

To be clear, I’m not laying this problem on the shoulders of engineers.  Developing complex systems is really hard, and keeping track of all the intricate interdependencies can be daunting.

What is often overlooked however, is that human interactions also have many intricate interdependencies.  When you expect your engineers to keep track of both the technical intricacies and the human ones, you are quite simply, expecting the impossible.

This kind of problem is a symptom which reflects how much the organization values the customer.

Here is a good sanity check for your organization

  • How often do you let your engineers talk to actual customers, or at least observe conversations with them? Hint: if it’s “never”, your customers can tell. Your product shows it.
  • How many people working on the product are devoted 100% to thinking about the human interactions and not writing any code? Hint: if it’s “Zero”, your customers can tell. Trust me.
  • What did you design first, the data/event model, or the user interactions? Hint:  well… you know where I’m going with this.


Here is the bottom line.  Until the robot revolution overthrows us, your product is going to be used by humans. Shouldn’t you spend at least as much time thinking about the humans, as you do the machines?

image credit:  josefkubes | Shutterstock