Obviously Not Obvious

DesolationOn my way back from the airport, I decided I need to get some gas and pulled up to a local gas station.  I went through the usual paces: credit card, zip code, No, I do not want a car wash, nozzle, gas grade, pump. And nothing happened.

After putting the nozzle back, pushing the grade button a few times, trying to pump again, still nothing.  Maybe I did something out-of-order.

So I put the nozzle back, canceled the transaction and then carefully repeated each step – still no gas. I thought, “Wow, this is the first time that I have ever discovered a broken pump that wasn’t already so labeled.”  So I went inside and said, “It looks like pump 4 is broken?”.  He responded, “Nope, you just need to lift the switch underneath the nozzle to turn on the pump”.  So out I went and sure enough after lifting the nozzle, you have to lift the base that holds the nozzle. More embarrassing,  there was a sticker right next to the nozzle showing the switch in the associated “Start” and “Stop” settings.

Now some of you are reading this and maybe thinking, well, obviously you need to lift that switch under the nozzle, and in retrospect it is “obvious”.  But what is obvious?  And why do things seem obvious only after we see the solution?

We can all think of brain teasers where we noodled for some time unable to come up with the solution.  When someone tells us the solution, we groan, “Oh, it was so obvious!”  Merriam-Webster says things are obvious when “easily discovered, seen, or understood”.  No surprises there.  And what could be more easily discovered, seen or understood than facts and methods we have already learned. Most of what we know we now consider obvious and what we don’t know, challenging.

Why then do we get frustrated with others we are teaching when they don’t see what is obviously so obvious. It is not them that has the problem but ourselves.  For in this area, we find ourselves lacking the ability to shepherd others across the field of the unknown, and that realization frustrates us. Of course, when feeling frustrated we would rather it be someone else’s problem than our own. So when we feel frustrated with others struggling with what we consider obvious, remember the problem is not with them, but with us.  For if it was really so obvious, they wouldn’t be having any trouble.

A good friend of mine reminds me periodically that there is no intuitive interface — there are only interfaces that are familiar and once familiar, it becomes intuitive.  That gas pump is now familiar and won’t cause me problems, but had clearly caused others the same difficulty as the attendant immediately knew the solution to the “broken” pump.  He could get frustrated and yell at having to point out this obvious thing every time someone asks, but he just points them in the right direction and everyone keeps moving forward. We should be like that when others need the same kind of instruction.

[Photo Credit:  Mark J P]

This entry was posted in Ambiguity, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Obviously Not Obvious

  1. My mother owned a computer made before the standard “power button” symbol became ubiquitous. My brother had to call me from across the country for me to tell him that the decorative elongated trapezoid on the front was actually the power button.

Leave a Reply