An anecdote about the resistance of things

3 minutes read

I had a print a roll-up kakemono, and I checked a cheap option (5€) to have an actual human check my file. I thought: stupid mistakes happen, better have someone double-check, for this cheap.

Later that day (today), I get an unfortunate email: my file is non-conform. Due to a bad resolution, they say, and the printed result could be pixelated. But is it, though? I double check. The kakemono is a composite image of different sources (see it at the end), and most of them are well above the required resolution (a modest 150 dpi). Not the background image, though; but it’s blurry by nature and it does not matter. I can’t see anything else. There might be an option to tell them to proceed anyway, but I try a quick fix. I add a slight blur on the background image in the case that some pixels would be visible, then I export all as a 300 dpi pixel image, and import it back in the PDF format they require.

At that moment I thought that those 5€ just cost me time and money, as the original result would presumably be exactly the same. I thought so because their feedback was not the kind of mistake I had expected to make; in fact I had not made the feared mistake, I precisely knew what I was doing all along. And I had better things to do. I was frustrated.

But now I think: what if that frustration is precisely the sign that it worked? I started to accept the idea that the background image might have been actually pixelated, and that my quick fix was indeed what I was supposed to do. I started to see things differently once the initial frustration was gone.

So was it a good deal, or not, these five euros? Here is the interesting thing: it can only work by being annoying. If you have an idea of the kind of mistake you could make, you have already checked the file for that at the point you validate the option. No, you go for it as a protection against unexpected issues, albeit you think your file is right. So every time it actually proves useful, it’s a bad news in the eye of the user. Frustration is inherent to the success of the feature.

This happens because the feature is expressed as a resistance of the system. It resists your mistakes. The problem comes from you. Although it also works for you; you’re the client and the problem. You give the system the right to frustrate you. You pay for that. Because you know that you’re also that person who fucks up.

Now, you may not accept this resistance, you may disagree. You may think that it’s wrong, and you’re right. Your emotions, if you’re like me, will push you down that road. Remark that it depends on the feedback. If it told me: “check that the background image is not pixelated”, I might have accepted it better. But that’s because I have some degree of judgment about what I am doing.

Now picture a slightly different situation. You lack judgement about what you are doing. The system resists, but in the end you have no clue whether it is right or wrong. And it prevents you from doing what you are supposed to do. Would you think that it works? Would you feel it that way?

Tool makers don’t want their users to feel frustrated, hampered. Users make the success of a tool. A tool perceived to malfunction would presumably be abandoned by its users. Or would it? I will leave you at that: I think that scientific instruments are too docile, and that’s in part because their designers, for instance the computer scientists who publish algorithms, believe that it is not worth the pain of frustrating their potential users. If they fuck up, they fuck up; especially when they will never know.

The damned kakemono. More about its content later on…

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