You are on mute

“If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”

Ralf Speth

You are the CEO of 1.5 Trillion dollar company (yes, Trillion with a ‘T’), and you are being questioned by lawmakers about a potentially hostile country’s spying on you.

The lawmaker leans in to the microphone. Do you think a foreign power is using the technology of your company? He sees your lips moving, but no sound comes out.

“Mr. Bezos, I believe you’re on mute”

This happened to Jeff Bezos yesterday. When being questioned on China’s involvement in US tech companies, he ‘forgot’ to un-mute himself before answering the question.

Jeff Bezos did not flinch, but this shows how our lives are enmeshed with digital products. How much we use them without conscious thought. And thus, how high the stakes are for users. Did the designer of that mute button ever think it would be used in such a key context?

Yes, this is an outlier, but this could be another important meeting, It could be the first job interview for a bright but shy youngster, it could be a fundraising pitch for a startup which needs to survive.

Of course the software he was using, Cisco Webex, should have been better designed. We always know if the video is on. Even when we are sharing a screen, our laptops have a light on top to indicate that video is on. But there is no such status indicator for audio. Why?

I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t that important yet.

This is not just about the mute button or video calling. In many other important situations, thought-lacking designs can lead to user frustration. For example the blogger Tim Urban:

I am a huge fan of his blog Wait but why, especially about AI and Elon Musk. I know he goes really deep into his subject areas. If he lost some interesting content due to that little error, thousands of his readers, like me, also lost it. And the same story probably for other creators who ‘forgot’ to save their work.

(Also, this weekend, I wrote about ideas on this blog. A post which had a lot of images, meant to enlighten and entertain the readers. But due to some weird error, they didn’t get the images. I was alerted and rectified it, but the mail was sent)

And it’s just not individual humans making mistakes on their devices, sometimes they just cannot avoid it, and it costs them money. It causes them mental pain.

Most of the times, as product creators we don’t think of these seemingly outlandish but very human scenarios. And the pain our users feel – that’s the cost of bad design.

Over time, it will show up on our bottomline.

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