Cambridge University Design / UX group


A friend of mine was chatting me recently about her frustration at using a new system (a server farm, in fact) where she works as a scientific researcher. The server farm gives her access to lots of computer processing power, so that she can run big data queries and calculations. The system that she and her colleagues were using before was very user-friendly, with logical naming of stuff, good network access, helpful administrators, etc. But the new system… well, that’s a bit of a usability nightmare!

OK, so I am not talking about issues of web design here, but some of the features of this new system have clearly degraded the user experience, so I think it is worth considering as an example.


This computer farm and all the data that the researchers use are internal, so all the users know what they need, and are protected by internal security systems. In the old system, the databases that the researchers used were called something simple like “database1, database2, database3″, and everyone knew what was in each. Now, the databases are called things like “oracle_specialdump_June2009_internal“. Anyone who has ever had to connect to a database from a command line (which is how things work in my friend’s case) will recognise that typing that in takes a lot longer than “database1”.


Second is the password arrangement. In the old system, there was one password which worked with every database, and everyone knew it. Yes, yes, so it wasn’t terribly secure in the past, but because of other internal considerations, this was never a problem. It was also a very simplistic password – thermodynamics. Now, each database has its own password, and these are 15-character jumbles of numbers and letters (which all the researchers inevitably write on a Post-it note, and stick on the side of their screen!).

Lights out

The third thing upsetting my friend is that if you are “inactive” for more than 20 minutes, the new system simply logs you out, dropping any windows you might have open, and wiping your history for the session you were just in. So, you know… don’t go to a meeting. Don’t go for lunch. Don’t go and feed your baby at the nursery. Because when you come back, your connection to the computer farm will have gone.

System Administrators / Web Developers vs Users

Clearly, all the things that have been changed in this new system are completely valid, reasonable steps taken by the system administrators. They increase security, reduce the strain on the system (lots of inactive, open connections hanging about), and the semantic nomenclature is more meaningful (to the administrators, at least).

But the researchers are now struggling to run their calculations and processes, because they are up against usability problems. They may seem like little gripes, but they are adding up to wasted time.

Computer says “no”

It is not hard to transpose this situation into something concerning a website. The developer of that site might completely understand how it all works, what the names mean, and so on… but if the user can’t carry out the actions they came there for, then the website fails at the first step… functionality.

The system administrators have done things in a logical way, but to me, it looks as though they have missed out the step where they communicate with the users of their systems. When this reduces productivity, it needs to be considered more closely…

* Notefor reasons of courtesy, I have changed names and references in this article!


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