Things that are Hard to Use

A few weeks ago I posted this thread questioning things that are Safe.

Now I want to probe things that are exceptionally hard to use, or exceptionally easy to use. This will form an ease-of-use continuum, so when we talk of ‘simplifying’ something, we can do so with measure.

A childs ball is pretty easy to use. Billions can use a ball correctly without training. The Space Shuttle is probably pretty hard to use. Only a few know how to use it correctly after substantial training (although perhaps all of us could fly it with the same training?)

What can you think of? Are there things that are so hard to use that despite training, only a few people worldwide could ever use it?

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Hard to use: copy/xerox machine

Easy to use: Spoon? I am sure there are easier things that we have taken granted for that we don’t even realize it.

I think it may be of interest how many of the easy to use things, while probably not difficult to use correctly anyway, are made even easier by constant exposure and modeling. Difficult things however, by virtue of their speciality do not benefit from such exposure.

Also, do we make a distinction between hard to use and hard to use correctly?

Stapler (not necessarily refilling, but just the act of stapling)

4 Stroke - Gas Powered String Trimmer

One classic “hard to use” product would be the VCR.

Also clamshell packaging.

There are tons of books you can look at for examples… obviously every Don Norman book has good examples. ‘Being Digital’ by Nicholas Negroponte (the MIT director behind the OLPC Project) gives good digital examples.

Also, IDiot, I wouldn’t necessarily say a hammer is easy to use… how many times do you see people hammering nails / tacks diagonally? People don’t realise you hammer with your wrist and not your arm.

Computers. I’ve been using them my whole life and always have problems with them. Not sure if you should blame the hardware sofware or operating systems though. Probably a combo of all of them.

Also, Ive always found bike pumps hard to use. Either I get it on the stem and then I cant push down the pump or I get it on the stem and the pump just pushes air around it. Or I dont know which way the lever should be to lock onto it. It can be very agravating. I think I’ll redesign that soon.

Push further…What things are MONUMENTALLY difficult to use?

Are there things that only a minority of people on the planet use successfully, even after a lifetime of training?


I’m thinking for some reason of a rare language that only a few people speak so it can’t be used effectively as a communication tool by majority. It’s not a thing, but every object related to the use of that language if it requires special unique to that language characters would be problematic to use. Yes, an average American would be able to press all of the buttons on Cyrillic keyboard, but wouldn’t be able to type anything meaningful without learning a language that uses Cyrillic alphabet first.

  • Paint is difficult to use correctly

  • Old school unix, DOS to a lesser extent. Basically, non-GUI OS

  • Velcro straps are easy to use. I find shoe laces difficult. I’ve been tying them all my life and they still come undone. It’s embarrassing really.

  • Language is difficult. It takes years just to learn the basics. Very few every perfect it. English is probably at the easy end, French is much more difficult

  • Pencils & pens. Much like language, it takes years to learn to write or draw, lifetimes to perfect

  • Airplanes seem difficult. It does require a lot of training

  • Cups are very easy to use. Wheels are easy to use. Sticks are easy to use. Basically, any elemental tool. Sticks are so easy to use, there are some animals that use them as tools to secure food and play with.

  • Doors are easy to use. Locks are more difficult.

  • TVs are easy to use

  • Electricity is hard to use.

rubix cube (purposefully)
Fax Machine
ketchup packets (grrrr)

things that only a handfull of people use to begin with like large equppment
tunnel-boring machines (that can’t be easy)
military aircraft
oil drills

even some asians don’t know how to use them properly.

Try using an Ipod when it is dark.

No matter how many different office phone I come across…I’ve never found an easy to use model.

All gas pumps all have different interface and it gets really more complicated if you want to pay at the pump with your credit card.

Cellphones are also complicated due to the changing interface, the nanoscopic buttons plus the tons of useless features. None of them are easy to use as an ordinary house phone. Whenever I want to make a call from the directory of a cellphone that isnt mine, it always takes a good minute to figure out the phone.

But my favorite is the USB plug : how many have you inserted it the wrong way?

Double-sided sellotape. I hear the devil designed it.

Easy to use: toilet.
Hard to use: Public toilet when the seat is still warm. Very warm!

Condoms can be hard to use…on multiple levels. But have you ever tried to put one on in the dark aboslutely trashed. Yeah, that can be difficult. Sometime jsut getting it out of the package is a task.

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Things that are hard to use:

Air traffic control system?
Chinese language typesetting machines (50,000 characters)
Dead languages
The Government
ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems like SAP
CPOE (computerized physician order entry systems)
FBI software (has been in the news repeatedly since 9/11)

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How is the government hard to use? I really think it depends on the branch. For example, USPS is easy to use, at least for letter mail. I put a stamp on a piece of paper and I put it in my mail box. Wow! Easy. Immigration, at least to become a Canadian is maybe 2.5 out 10 (10 being impossibly complex, 1 being the postal service). Taxes maybe 3.5 for the common person. Now that I think of it, outside of greasing politicians to get a piece of pork through the parliment/house/senate/council, government in the US and Canada is fairly easy to use. Is it just me?

IP: Hell yeah! iDrive! I remember Car magazine had an airline pilot try to use idrive when it came out and he said it was more complicated and confusing than a 747.