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“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

So Cassius says to Brutus in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar Cassius was trying to convince Brutus to join the plot to assassinate Caesar. As I recall, things did not turn out well for Julius Caesar. Or for Brutus. Or for Cassius. Or, ultimately, for Mark Anthony either, but that’s another story. The point is that there is always an interesting tension between imagining that we ourselves are the masters of our fate. It is our ability, or attitude, or grit, or whatever that determines how much money or happiness or health we have. Or, on the other hand, there is the view that things are pretty much beyond our conscious control and due to our heredity, our environment, our upbringing, etc. Both views are partly true and both have their place. If you are a user of a product and you want to get something accomplished, blaming the stupid product will not help you accomplish your goals. On the other hand, if you are a product developer, it will not help you to blame your user. You need to design thoughtfully.

I was reminded of this debate today by trying to scan a document. In general, I am amazed how excellentscanners and printers are today, not to mention CHEAP! I was born in an era of expensive, heavy, noisy, dot matrix printers or teletypes. You’ve come a long way, baby! But the software that actually lets us use these marvelous machines. Hmmm. Here there is a lot of room for improvement. Today, I repeatedly tried to scan a one page document to no avail. I thinkI finally diagnosed what the problem was. The scan screen came up with a default that said “custom size” and the defaulted “custom dimensions” were 0 by 0. Because, obviously, the development team had done a thorough study of users and found, I suppose somewhat surprisingly, that the most common size of image people wanted to scan was 0 by 0. I suppose such images have the advantage that you can store many more of them on your hard drive than images that are 8.5 by 11 inches or 3 inches by 5 inches, say.

But this is not an isolated example. Often there are “defaults” which seem to me to be rather odd, to say the least. Right now, my google map application, for no discernible reason, has decided that a good default location for me is the geographical center of the continental United States. It was not “born” with this default but somewhere along the line “developed” it. Why? I have never travelled (knowingly) to the geographical center of the United States. I have never wanted to “find” the geographical center of the United States. Yet, for some mysterious reason, whenever I do try to find a route to say, the dentist who is ten miles away, the map app tries to send me from Southern California to the geographic center of the US and then back again. I can eventually get around this, but next time I open up the app, there we are again. Of course, I am tempted every time to just to see the place (near the corners of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri. And, “with no traffic”, it only takes a little over 22 hours to get there. The phrase, “with no traffic” in Southern California is equivalent to “when pigs fly.” So, tempting as it is to drive 22 hours to the geographical center of the US and then 22 hours back (provided the sky if filled with flying pigs) in order to go to the dentist who is a few minutes away, I haven’t yet actually taken the trip.

I am tempted to rant about the absolute ludicrosity of “sponsored links” (which cheeringly informs me that I could take a side trip to a gynecologist on the way to the dentist) but I’ll try to stay on topic. Where do these defaults come from? Is this just a nerd’s nerd free choice as a perk of the job? Do they seriously conceptualize size in terms of a two dimensional grid with an origin at zero zero and therefore this is a “logical” default for paper size? Are they trying to do the user a favor by saving space?

I am hoping there is a product manager out there who can answer these questions. I am hoping things will turn out better than they did for Caesar and Brutus and Cassius.