My dishwasher has a bit of whatever the white goods equivalent is of bling. It has a display panel on the front conveying mostly irrelevant information fairly inefficiently. I assume it is intended to communicate whizzy modernity; it certainly doesn’t communicate much useful information.  It slowly cycles through three screens, only one of which tells me when it will finish, which is the only thing I want to know. But the screen is there, glowing with potential.

The actual controls are tucked away inside the door. They are simple enough and include another display, but one which is much more limited, able to show three crude characters.  At the moment it is showing ‘E-24’. This is clearly not good, since the dishwasher has stopped mid-cycle with a puddle of dirty water at the bottom  But in what way it is not good, I am none the wiser.

Meanwhile, the big screen at the front is showing precisely nothing. It could so easily give me an E-24 related message: the first level translation when I found it took four words, the second level explanation of what to do about it took 75 more to give far more detail than I actually needed. Either would be well within the capabilities of the screen, neither is attempted.

No doubt the deep significance of E-24 is explained in the manual, but that’s just an assumption, since the manual is not there to check. So the obvious answer is to google for a solution. I know the manufacturer, I know the error, but it occurs to me that the model number might be relevant too. There is a helpful sticker giving me a phone number to ring, but no sign of a model number (and what’s the betting on the first question they would ask me if I were to ring the number?).  Too bad, time is running short, I am supposed to be somewhere else. And google comes through without it: a simple tweak, turn  off, turn on, off it happily goes.

The point of all this is the balance between the normal and the abnormal.  Someone has put a lot of thought into the information this machine gives out when it is in a normal state. That’s the state it is in almost all the time, so at first sight, that’s a sensible thing to do. I don’t know how often across the universe of dishwashers E-24 comes up, maybe it’s just once in a month of Sundays. But precisely because it is rare and unexpected, that’s when I need help understanding what it means and what I should do.

It’s terribly easy in designing any service to put disproportionate weight on the core process which lead to successful outcomes. Newly fashionable approaches, such as agile, can be understood as encouraging that, with an emphasis on delivering highest value first. The catch, of course, is that value is not necessarily the same as volume, but the two can easily be elided.

Of course it’s right to make sure that the core experience works well: it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Developing the first, second and nth level support processes always seem to lag behind the process which might need supporting, rather than being seen as an intrinsic part of them. So edge conditions can be overlooked, but more subtly to the extent they are developed, they more easily fall into a more technocratic or expert user approach.

In this respect, dishwashers are like staircases:

When specialised users are in a position to specify a service to meet their needs, that is what they will do, even if they are a small minority of the overall user base.

I am sure that dishwasher repair people the length and breadth of the country can recite error codes in their sleep: E-24 is all they need to know. But they are a tiny minority of the people affected. Or as Brian Hoadley has put it in a recent blog post:

No Virginia… you are NOT the user. The user is the user. Someday, you may have the opportunity to be a user on a project – where you are not doing the design. But until that day, please, everyone involved in projects, work harder to get to know who your users are, and please, do involve them in the process. It can be really quite rewarding!

The screen on the front of my dishwasher remained resolutely blank. But if you too need help with E-24, the answer is out there.


  1. Seth Godin made a very similar point a few days ago:

    The Catch 22 of engineering feedback: “The only person smart enough to understand this warning doesn’t need it.”

    That’s over, I’m afraid. You have unlimited paper and a pen with plenty of ink. Be clear, enunciate and tell us what to do, please.

    The good part: it’s cheaper to explain it right the first time than it is to answer a question later.

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