HBO’s Silicon Valley: Usability Microcosm

As a user advocate who is participating in multiple usability-based projects, I am thrilled to see the issue get wider recognition. Now that it’s out there, it’s time we all did something about it.

Monday evening was a very interesting evening in our household. Monday evening is the night my husband and I watch the newest Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley via HBO Go. On this evening, Silicon Valley in particular prompted interesting discussion between my husband and I which is a good microcosm into an emerging field in technology: Usability.

Silicon Valley is a show co-created by Mike Judge and inspired by his time as an engineer in Silicon Valley in the 1980’s. It features a group of tech geeks who create a software compression platform called Pied Piper and are seeking to become tech successes on the order of Mark Zuckerberg. Season 3 sees the guys, now flush with VC funds, attempting to become a full-fledged software company, and hilariously stumbling through common tech/business conflicts. If you haven’t seen it, go now watch it!


Episode 27: Daily Active Users focused on the latest dilemma for the Pied Piper team. They have more than 500K installs of their App, but as CTO and Creator Richard explains, “Installs are not the metric that matter”. What is important is the number of people who are using the App daily…and that number is bad news. A Focused Group is convened to examine why, and Richard is infuriated to see the users find the app confusing, difficult to use and just plain awful.

At first, Richard can’t understand why.  “Everyone I gave it to loved it” he exclaims in frustration.  Monica, the first and only beta tester who didn’t like it and who serves on the board of Pied Piper asks “Who did you give it to?” A look of horror descends as Richard realizes that everyone he gave it to are his friends…who are all engineers and techies. Real users, the ones they need to use the App, are less than impressed.

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Desperate, Richard barges into the room, taking command of the focus group and spending hours explaining everything down to the neural net features to the mystified users. In a humorous bit later, Richard decides to use their money to educate the users on “…how cool the platform is!” and they wind up Pipey, a flashback to Clippy, the Microsoft Word Office Assistant which was always less than helpful.

My husband, consummate computer geek and network/systems/security administrator, immediately sided with Richard. “Those people are too stupid to use the platform! This is what’s wrong with tech,” he proclaimed. “Why should they have to dumb it down?”

“Because,” I replied, “they are trying to sell it, and if you can only sell it to engineers and techies you have limited yourself to a very small pool. If they want to make money and be successful, they will need regular users. When your cartoon user assistant is saying things like ‘With Pied Pipers revolutionary, neural net optimized, shard encryption system, compressing a movie file is just six clicks away!’ you have already lost everyone who isn’t a techie.” The conversation continued, but this was the gist of it.

I got a personal demonstration of this very problem several days later during a doctor’s appointment. The nurse checking me in accessed my EHR in their system, and asked me the normal series of basic questions. Then I watched her sit at the monitor, clicking to open expandable section headers for things that didn’t apply to this particular visit, clicking a checkbox to indicate the section didn’t apply, clicking again to close the section and continuing to do the same for at least six more sections. When I asked her why she was doing that, she sighed and replied, “The screen won’t let me save unless you have something in all the sections, or you check the box that indicates the section doesn’t apply. It’s a real pain.”

That’s right…it took three clicks to check one checkbox. And there were at least seven sections that needed to be done to save the record. That’s 21 clicks for seven check boxes. For a techie that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. A very big deal. What can this lead to? Just off the top of my head it can lead to:

  • Zone Out: When users stop paying attention to what they are actually doing and start clicking things on auto pilot just to complete the damn screen. The problem? There may be important info that is missed or left off because users aren’t actively engaged in what they are doing. In a healthcare setting, this can lead to Adverse Health Events (AHE) or Medical errors.
  • User Frustration: I’m sure your HR department doesn’t appreciate having unhappy employees, who contribute to a high turn-over rate due to frustration over the tools they must use to do their jobs. Not to mention the hostility this breeds between users and the IT department, who must work together on very important issues in a now near-toxic environment.
  • Employee Injury: Months and years of excessive clicking, especially if the station is not ergonomically correct, can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and host of other issues that all fit neatly under a Workman’s Comp claim. Something I am sure HR will not be thrilled about.
  • Data Loss: When users get frustrated enough, they develop a work around, which is often paper-based. “I’ll enter it later,” they figure. Only they forget. Or lose the paper with the info. Now you have data loss in the system, and potentially a data leak of proprietary information to non-authorized viewers. Another term for that scenario? Data breach.

At the end of Daily Active Users, Richard was ready to throw in the towel on the whole company. In an effort to save it, CFO Jared pays a company in Bangledesh to supply 7000 DAU’s, plus 1000 more each week to motivate Richard that the company is worth fighting for. Wallpaper over a massive crack that threatens to take down the whole house.

For the rest of us working in the tech real world, it forces us to confront the usability of our systems. There is a reason it is important. As a user advocate who is participating in multiple usability-based projects, I am thrilled to see the issue get wider recognition. Now that it’s out there, it’s time we all did something about it.


  1. […] to unpack with that statement, but the main issue it is trying to address is something that I have frequently pointed out as a problem in current technology: Software and systems are designed by programmers and techies, […]



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