1.7 A Look Across the Plateau of User Tolerance

by Ric Epley

A professor in the Interactive Design program at Lindsey Wilson College is doing research centered around the tolerance and patience one has when interacting with consumer services and digital applications.  David Edwin Meyers has coined this The Plateau of Tolerance, as visualizations of his early research show that most people display a well-mannered patience when seeking service and information – or when learning a new digital application. But the patience falls off sharply after a certain period of time. It is the time spent before this fall-off and the factors involved that Professor Meyers is researching. “Using time as a quantitative measurable dimension is critical in architecting a user experience and in satisfying users and consumers”, says Meyers (Meyers, 2017).

Instructions Skipped

When users download a new app or game, most expect the experience to be usable and intuitive by default. Fewer people turn to instructions and user manuals. There is lots of research taking place in the area of user attention. One such theory, the Complacency Effect reveals that automation complacency occurs under conditions of a multiple-task load when manual tasks compete with the automated task for the operator’s attention (Parasuraman & Manzey, 2010). Like in the Plateau of Tolerance, users are learning a new interaction of one hand, while trying to use or apply it on the other. Another process referred to as Learned Carelessness, which explores users skimming and skipping information in an effort to rapidly move into “using” the product or making critical decisions when moving forward in the experience (Kuratorium & Möbus, 2004). This study by Andreas Lüdtke Kuratorium and Claus Möbus focused on this particular topic as it relates to pilots and aircraft errors. It found that 60-80% of commercial aircraft accidents are caused by the flight crew. They state that system designs should be changed to prevent the identified human errors. In this way, the design is adapted to the needs of the human operator (Kuratorium & Möbus, 2004).

All of these areas have a similar component. It is the attention of the user and the time they are willing to invest into an interaction or experience. Even though the Plateau of Tolerance research does not necessarily involve life and death decisions as in the Kuratorium/Möbus research, it is paramount for companies that want to provide consumer products and services. Misunderstanding your user is often a fatal error, that not only can lose a potential user, but conversely turn them against you as a negative testimonial.

Jef Raskin, an early innovator in the field of Human-Computer Interaction and lead user interface designer for the first Apple Mac computer. He proposed that human performance factors are independent of user’s age, gender, cultural background or level of expertise. At some level, we are all human and even the most proficient user has limitations. When users perform tasks, they switch attention from one item at a time and then to another. In doing this, they adjust what Raskin has coined, their “locus of attention” (Raskin, 2000).

No Interface is the Best Interface to Lessen User Abandonment

No matter how great your interface is, users are typically happier if there is less of it. The best interface is none at all. If there has to be an interface, users will have a less tiring and more pleasurable experience when they don’t have to learn or think about what they are doing (Raskin, 2000).

By making aspects of the interface consistent and reliable, users can fall back on habits and rely on their unconscious to do the work. To understand what these current habits look like, the only answer is to get out into the field, find out and test your designs.

How does this relate to a user’s tolerance and abandonment? Meyers says, “Like in the Locus of Attention, developers and creators need to understand a user’s habits and present perceived roadblocks with focus and brevity.” It is the unnecessary use of instructional information overload that creates frustration, and how users push critical information into the category of information pollution. “Users are generally forgiving, but too much of this, and they will abandon your experience”, exclaims Meyers. And as concluded in the Kuratorium/Möbus research, creators and developers should learn to design for the needs of the user (Meyers, 2017).

Automated Phone Service Hell

This research covers many areas in the consumer realm. Meyers especially points out the frustration expressed by research subjects in the area of telephone support and information processes. The amount of unrelated information and the time required by consumers to get a simple question answered has become an area of particular frustration. Many subjects relate this to a company “simply not caring.” They perceive companies as not valuing them or their time. In these cases, companies shift the burden over to the user. Telephone answering “services” are one of the best worst examples of professor Meyer’s theory. “The frustration caused by dealing with an automated phone line…(creates) …numerous psychological consequences for customers using the automated phone system, not all of them good”(Burnett, 2014).

Customer satisfaction has been repeatedly found to be one of the most important business objectives. One element identified as critical to delivering satisfaction is quality. The definition of quality generally depends on the type of product or service offered by the firm. However, one aspect identified as central to delivering satisfaction in the service sector is time (Hirschman, 1987). This makes time a critical component of quality as well. (Unzicker, 1999). However, this process of trying to contact a company only to be thwarted by an artificial voice is one of the most stressful situations and requires a great deal more time than necessary or expected.

Use of Machine/System Trumps User Experience

Another example is when reaching a human but the system in place requires that you default to the technology. An example is calling a barber shop to request a haircut. When the stylist answers the phone she says “You need to go to our website and make your appointment there.” The potential customer then replies, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that. I have you here now. Can’t we just schedule in real time”? The stylist responds that she will just go online and do that service for the customer while they are on the phone together. This seems to be backward to the premise of customer satisfaction. Although the customer’s goal (scheduling a haircut) is reached and the objective of the company is met (using the technology to schedule), neither person is satisfied with the process (Epley, 2017).

“Think about it, when you launch a mobile banking app to check your bank balance, after a brief security log-in, this should be a fairly quick process,” says Meyers.  And most are. But there is a trend now, because of the security breaches as of late, that many banks (and even schools) are requiring users to change passwords frequently. Some as often as every quarter. While this may sound reasonable at first, after two or three years, the act of remembering the latest password, documenting and retrieving, becomes an enormous burden for the user. “It certainly makes for a challenging user experience” (Meyers, 2017).


Meyers hopes to uncover patterns based on different demographics and cultural dynamics. He hypothesizes that baby-boomers, gen-Xers, millennials, and snowflakes will result in different trends and patterns. Since segments like baby boomers and gen-Xers experienced a pre-digital era and a time before overseas-automated phone support. For more information on the ongoing research, see http://www.DavidEdwinMeyers.com/PlateauOfTolerance/


Burnett, D. (2014, April 25). On-hold hell: why automated phone systems are infuriating | Dean Burnett. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2014/apr/25/on-hold-hell-why-automated-phone-systems-are-infuriating

Epley, R.L., (2017, March 24). Telephone conversation with Interpro barbers.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1987), “Theoretical Perspectives of Time Use: Implications for Consumer Behavior Research,” Research in Consumer Behavior, Volume 2, 55-81.

Lüdtke , A., & Möbus, C. (2004). A Case Study for Using a Cognitive Model of Learned Carelessness in Cognitive Engineering. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://www.uni-oldenburg.de/en/computingscience/lcs/research/projects/shaft/

Meyers, D. (2017, April 28). Professor of Interactive Design, Lindsey Wilson College,[Personal interview].

Parasuraman, R., & Manzey, D. H. (2010, October 20). Why don’t people read instructions? Complacency and Bias in Human Use of Automation: An Attentional Integration. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/4831/why-dont-people-read-instructions

Raskin, J. (2000). The humane interface: new directions for designing interactive systems. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Rose, W. (2017, April 12). Personal communication.

Unzicker, D. K. (n.d.). (1999, July). The Psychology of Being Put on Hold: An ExploratoryStudy of Service Quality[Scholarly project].