In 2005, a restaurant owner became so frustrated when using his laptop that he threw it into a deep fat fryer. In 2007, police investigated a late-night ruckus caused by an aggravated gentleman hurling his computer out of the window. Moreover, in 2015, gun violence was documented against a computer when an enraged user took his PC into an alley and shot at it eight times.
Frustration with technology is a universal experience. While most of us have resisted casting our devices into deep fat fryers, we have all felt that familiar surge of annoyance when tech products mystify or misbehave. This experience is called ‘computer rage‘. It is a well-documented phenomenon, as studded with absurd stories of user wrath as it is studied by academics.
Fortunately, there is an antidote. (And one that involves no counselling or criminal damage fines). That antidote comes in the form of User Experience (UX).
Indeed, a smooth user experience can calm that computer rage and prevent our digital frustration. Though you may not think of it as such, good UX acts as a tranquiliser that takes out our temperamental technology outbursts.
Rage Against The System
The prevalence of computer rage is a severe blight. A 1999 study found that nearly half of all people working with computers feel frustrated or stressed because of IT problems. A decade later, researchers found that 54% of people had verbally assaulted their computers, while 40% had resorted to physical violence.
You see it at work and home every day. A colleague swears at their screen and labels an awkward software product a ‘piece of ****’. Keyboards are bashed when an application performs unexpectedly. You toss your phone aside in disgust when attempting to navigate a website not optimised for mobile.
Anecdotes aside, user frustration does not always manifest itself in obviously offensive actions. Many of our signs of technology rage are revealed within subtle digital behaviours. If a button fails to respond, for example, we click it again harder – faster and faster with each impatient tap. If a page or window is taking too long to load, we typically thrash our pointer in an erratic ‘wild mouse‘ burst. Alternatively, if uncertain about next steps, we might drag our mouse back and forth between two targets in a hesitation pattern.
Digital frustration can be expressed in abandoned forms, quick clicks from area to area, and the final hit of the ‘x’ button. We can display our digital displeasure by exiting before saving progress, by jamming text into input forms, and by backtracking through a product or website without taking any further actions.
Ultimately, this rage is woven into our modern lives. Some of it is tangible and bodily, while some is demonstrated through a subtle digital sign language of user annoyance.
The Psychology Of Frustration
So, are we all just highly-strung tech users? The reality of our fraught, frustrated reactions to bad user experiences goes a little deeper than pure peevishness.
Freud related frustration to goal achievement. Our actions have a purpose or goal, and any interruption to this goal completion is upsetting. Other psychologists have linked frustration with the anticipation of a goal, rather than its actual achievement. If our expectations are thwarted as we pursue an aim, the hindrance blocks satisfaction and skews anticipations. Alternatively, as Roger Barker posits, frustration occurs when “an obstacle prevents the satisfaction of a desire.”
Thinking of frustration more analytically helps us understand how it affects us as technology users. A broken link is a barrier to completing a goal, not a minor website blip. A small software bug is an attack on the user’s progress, not a mere error. When it comes to user interface design, confusing tabs and options are nothing short of a maze that takes the end goal out of sight altogether.
Meeting a poor user experience with frustration or even aggression is not nit-picking or pettiness. In truth, we are merely responding with our primary, unconditioned and natural reactions.
Our user frustration is only exacerbated by the trust we place in technology. As our lives become increasingly digitalised, our dependence on devices, programs and technical services intensifies. Technology is an ally – almost a friend.
There is even a theory that we treat computers practically as if they were real people. The Media Equation asserts that we respond to technology as we would to a fellow human being, going so far as to attribute personality characteristics to its behaviour. We do this, apparently, more often than we realise, and the reaction is both automatic and unavoidable.
This means that we struggle to be objective when faced with poor usability or performance issues. A frozen web page that loses our progress becomes a Judas-like figure in our minds. Software that we find difficult to use is being deliberately awkward, trying its very best to get on our nerves. Feature stuffing is the equivalent of a pushy sales rep waving more and more items in our faces.
This, then, is why we react so strongly to a frustrating user experience. Unthinkingly, we expect technology to know us and respond to our needs with human intelligence. It is, after all, a companionable colleague or cohort of sorts. As Tim Rotolo puts it: “When [computers] suddenly block our path or fail to perform to our expectations, we react to it like a violation of social norms or even as a personal betrayal.” Technology switches from ally to enemy infinitesimally, in the short, simple space of a crash or false click.
Applying The Antidote
A good user experience saves our sanity. It is the technology tranquiliser that prevents outbursts of frustration and keeps digital rage at a distance. The relationship between emotion and UX is not mere conjecture; studies have found that we react emotionally to negative and positive user experiences.
For example, one group of researchers found that empathetic UX helps us manage emotions. When an interface actively listened and validated the users’ frustrations when experiencing setbacks, it helped the user manage their emotions and reduce frustration. Another study found that framing errors in a positive light reduced the users’ anger. Still more research found that positive intervention during a progress delay led to both improved problem-solving performance and higher smiling activity from the user.
Inevitably, things will go wrong when we use technology. In the words of Stacy Shaw, “Technology is not perfect even though we may expect it to be by now.” From time to time, interfaces confound, bugs hamper our progress and journeys feel more laborious than necessary. This is where a good user experience can prevent death by a thousand paper cuts. As all evidence suggests, instructive, empathetic processes when something goes wrong are great at assuaging our user anger.
Sanding The Rough Edges
Ultimately, UX is not only a post-frustration tranquiliser. A carefully designed, consistently fine-tuned user experience can help detect and prevent the causes of our anger in the first instance.
Computer rage and technology frustrations may seem like basic facts of modern life. However, clever UX design turns this frustration into better products. When UX designers analyse behavioural data, find frustration markers and continually sand the rough edges, users can enjoy an experience that is smooth from entry to exit.
(Lead image: Depositphotos)