Usability 101: Don’t trap the user

Imagine walking down the street. You see a shop, you’re interested, and you walk in the door.

Only you find another door just inside, and it’s locked. You try the door in frustration – I mean, why would they have an open front door, but be locked inside? Then you turn to leave, and find the door behind you won’t open, either.


Not a nice feeling, really. And that’s why “Don’t trap the user” is one of the basic rules of usability. Given that, it’s surprising how often you find users trapped in software cycles of misery.

I encountered one of those today, and it was a doozy.

My son decided he wanted to play DC Universe Online, as he’d discovered it was now free to play. Fine, no issue, I found the site, downloaded the software, and installed it. Apart from a weird error that keeps telling me I’ve got out of date Flash software when I don’t, all works well.

The software starts up, and offers me the choice of logging in, or creating a new account. I create a new account, and it asks me to enter my date of birth.

Now, I’ll digress slightly, and state that one of the most obvious signs you’re getting old is when you have to scroll WAY down the list of years to select your date of birth. So there I am, scrolling down, when the mouse falls off the scrollbar – and for some reason, the form processes automatically, with 2002 selected. So now the software thinks I’m only 9 years old, and tells me politely that I can’t sign up, as I’m under age. It also tells me if I’m seeing this error by mistake, I can contact Support.

Nice. Remember, I didn’t process the form with the wrong date, I simply clicked off the listbox by mistake and the smart software did the rest. And now I’m stuck. There are no options to go back and re-enter the date of birth, you can only cancel and quit.

I close the software, and re-open it, but the smart software has remembered the incorrect data – again, I’m told that I’m under age, so I can’t sign up.

In frustration I quit, uninstall the software, then reinstall it (ignoring the ‘you’ve got out of date Flash’ error messages), and discover that the game makers have been a little smarter than that. Again, I’m too young, and I cannot sign up.

So, now I can  choose to do one of two things – give up, or contact support, and wait several days to see if they bother to respond. You can probably guess which option I chose. And given that the game is supposedly suffering from a lack of players and looking to expand, that makes it a double tragedy.

I can see why decisions like this are made – somebody somewhere decided that they would close the door on kids creating false accounts, stating they are older than they are. Kid tries to sign up, sees he is too young, so falsifies his date of birth. I can understand that.

Equally, I can see that kids are way smarter than that, and would mostly choose to enter an older D.O.B. to start with. And the cost of putting this child-trap into the software is losing customers who are completely valid. You can put bear-traps all around your building to keep away burglars, but don’t be surprised if you take out a fair few paying customers, too.

Gary Bunker

the Fore