5 Ways That Your Crappy Co-Worker Is Like A Crappy UI

It’s not just a silly question: By asking ourselves what we demand of people we work with, we can better understand what we should demand of UI’s.

Recently I was listening to a friend grouse about a crappy co-worker who had just washed up in his department. As the litany of complaints grew longer and longer, her co-worker began to sound more and more like a really crappy smartphone. Bear with me for a second, while I list some of those complaints, because when you get through them, they each reveal something telling about what we demand of a good user interface—and how we should look at the products we create.

  1. A Total Lack of Feedback

    My friend lamented the fact that whenever he would send an email to Employee X, he’d never respond back one way or another. For every input he gave, the response was simply nothing. Was this man working on what he’d asked? Had he even received it?
  2. A Total Lack of Information Hierarchy

    The emails this guy sent! Just a mass of information, undifferentiated, with no sense of a broader point or rationale. What was important? What wasn’t? Eventually, no one paid attention—even when the content of her emails was actually important.

    I’d be happy if you just did your regular job, thanks.
  3. Hollow Chumminess

    No one in the office was more down to screw around than Employee X. Cake in the break room? He’s there! Drinks after work? Let’s leave early! What seemed to be missing is the sense that there was an actual job to be done.
  4. Always Dedicating Resources To The Wrong Things

    When a project needed to be done, this gentleman would be fiddling in the margins, adjusting fonts on a PowerPoint. And when a project needed to be fixed, he never knew what to prioritize. "Oh is this important? I had no idea!"
  5. No Follow Through

    Say there was a serious problem. Mostly, this guy seemed to react by firing an email off into the ether, and simply forgetting about it. Hey, I did something, so it’s not my problem any more! Never mind doing just a bit more—or just enough to get the problem solved quickly.

Each of these regrettable traits has a precise parallel with a crappy UI. Numbers 1 and 2 have to do with establishing a two-way dialogue and handling information in a relevant, clear way—figuring out what’s worth bringing to a user’s attention, and what’s not. Number 3 is about UI’s that bother you with trivialities, while never quite being clear about their function. Number 4 is about the process of developing a UI: What do you fix, when things need fixing?

Number 5 is the most complex, and it has to do with addressing the broader context of what a UI is supposed to do. Imagine a smartphone app about adopting a cat, for example. A crappy app would give you a picture and maybe some sort of information so generic and out of date that it was useless—or worse, irrelevant. A good app would rethink the very process of adopting a cat. It would re-engineer the various touch points with a shelter and eliminate all of the hassles along the way.

Why on earth are you wasting time with that?!

The point of all this is that when we say we want things to be "human," we can actually learn a lot by flipping the thing around. What do we actually expect out of people? Maybe the best example of this way of thinking comes (of course) from Steve Jobs, who famously insisted that the early Macintosh’s OS be "friendly." Jobs was a fiend about that: The rounded corners, smiling Mac icon, and cheery fonts were all in service of a very human ideal.

When people say that outstanding UI’s have a "soul," it’s precisely because they’ve been created with human traits, such as friendliness, in mind. By contrast, UI’s that focus purely on usefulness will always leave you cold, just like a person that’s merely "useful" or "efficient" would be a bore. You talk about someone fun or chatty or stylish—then you’re talking about legitimate personality traits. And you can actually imagine them translating into the pixels of a smartphone.

If you asked me to boil down the design instinct into one single trait, I’d probably say that it’s the constant search for metaphors that might enlighten us about the way things could be. (Could a screen have "pages" that turn like those in a book? Could a computer screen behave like your desktop?) But the most powerful metaphors we have involve our relationships with friends and family—and co-workers.

[All images: Everett Collection/Shutterstock]

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  • Cathy Goodwin

    This article is brilliant. I immediately saw analogies to other arenas; for instance, a crappy business coach is not unlike a crappy UI or a crappy coworker. I plan to write about this topic in my own blog.

    I especially like the analogy to adopting a cat. Too many info products and biz coaches do exactly what you say the crappy app does: outdated, cookie-cutter info, when what's needed is a re-design. 

  • spencer saunders


    I'd like to submit that what I think is the "design instinct" that you refer to is actually one of empathy. 

    To consider how someone else will *feel* when interacting with a UI or a person is, at its core, the notion of empathy - the ability to place oneself in another's shoes. It's why (I believe) great, user-centric designers have a great deal of empathy, as do great people and co-workers. 

    If that nasty co-worker had a little bit more of it, then perhaps they would respond to emails, have the emotional intelligence to understand that not receiving a response to a request may in fact be stressing or even frustrating their co-worker. 

    And for the record - I feel like I've worked with this person before!

  • Oladimeji Joseph

    A co-worker is another perception point. If screwed up, it undermines the level of service the customer is supposed to experience.

  • Peterbot Malmö

    Cliff, this is your first article that really left me uninspired and deflated - not the sort of feeling I desire from a fluff design article.

    You need to reassess your relationship with this 'friend' of yours - he just seems like such a nasty character. With points 2 and 3, your pal presumes to speak for the entire office - basically from a management perspective. Yet, he's not management, is he? Sounds like a wanna-be middle-manager, brown-nosing micro-manager. The sort that is absolute poison to office politics. I most definitely wouldn't want him as a colleague. Some prick peering over my cubicle judging me? No thanks! And how the hell does he have so much free time - does he not have anything better to do?

    Comparing an individual to a user interface also seems pat. Point 2 can't be made without referring to information architecture. Really goes to show how unhelpful all this endless segmentation of the design process has been. Just a matter of time before 'users' are rechristianed 'participants' or some such thing, and we're left wiht another ridiculous crop of acronyms. 

  • fhcgsps

     steve -- your comment is a great example of what a crappy co-work would say -- arrogant and nasty -- lose the chip and pick up a copy of "the no asshole rule".

  • fhcgsps

    i LOVE this blog! this generation is FINALLY starting to wear itself out! for years, more experienced employees have been putting up with the "too cool for school" crowd...the not responding to emails, the ignoring advice, not blending, unconcerned about the greater good of the business. pure hell for more experienced employees....

    maybe this generation is finally maturing...the rest of us can only hope.

  • Ahmad

    Interesting article. User Interfaces can might have a personality; but will never have a soul.

  • Anna K Donahue

    Once again, Cliff, you make it sound so simple! At least now it's simple to spot the loser UI's and there's lots. 

  • Cliff Kuang

    Yup I recognize that its quite difficult in practice, but my hope is to make a lot of these concepts relatable to a wider audience--so that they can begin to become savvier about what design is, and thus raise their game in their work work, even if it isn't actually design.

  • Steven Leighton

     Mark -- it's probably faster to highlite "UI" and Google it, and learn, than to write your whine.