Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.