Crappy interface embarrasses Sulu on national television—not cool

Wanna Bet is a new show on ABC wherein celebrities bet on whether “ordinary” people can accomplish extraordinary things. Whichever celebrity has the most money at the end of the program gets to donate it to the charity of his or her choice. The way it works is that the show introduces the ordinary person, describes the (usually very odd) action this person is going to attempt, and the celebrities write down their prediction and bet amount. The attempt is made, the person succeeds or fails, and then the celebrities reveal their bets to much fanfare.

So far so good, right? The trouble is that there is some kind of disconnect in the betting process. On the first episode George Takei (better known as Sulu from Star Trek) excitedly revealed that he had guessed correctly and had bet $20,000. The show’s hosts, however, informed him he had only bet $2,000. For anyone not employed as a designer of interactive systems, it looked like George Takei was having a senior moment. It was embarrassing. The other celebrities on the show spent the rest of the episode pretending to have flubbed their bets to make up for it.

So where’s the failure here? George Takei is getting on in years; maybe he’s just not very comfortable with technology. Leaving off a zero is an easy mistake, right? Maybe, except that in the very next episode of the show, the same thing happened to comedian Melissa Peterman who thought she bet $5,000 but “really” bet $6,000. She’s only 37 and sharp as a whip. The show is now two for two, and I would argue there is a failure in the system.Sulu_photo_1.gifEach celebrity indicates his or her prediction and bet on a chunky wireless tablet, and when it comes time to reveal, it appears they must recall the amount from memory. It’s hard to identify the point of failure from the vantage point of my living room couch, but if I had to wager I would put my money on a very poor mechanism for choosing your bet.

Sulu_photo_2.gif The very moment of failure? On the left is Sherri Shepherd using a stylus, while George Takei, on the right, uses his finger. Touch screens can be finicky. Did the interface provide him with enough feedback to have confidence in the accuracy of his bet? I’m betting no.

Touch screens are still evolving, and it’s easy to make a mistake (especially considering George used his finger instead of the stylus to make his bet—see photo). Still, it shouldn’t be possible to make a mistake by an entire order of magnitude with a stray touch of your finger.

Thanks for being our guinea pig, ABC! But really, after the first error in the first episode the problem should have been investigated and corrected, preferably during the commercial break, even if it meant resorting to pen-and-paper. This is a very simple problem and should be completely idiot-proof. Embarrassing Sulu on national television is just not cool.

Fortunately the story has a happy ending, as George Takei went on to win $106,150 for the Japanese American National Museum. The take-away for the rest of us? Interaction design matters. Designers: test your systems under real conditions and don’t embarrass your users!

Watch it online in ABC's fancy full-episode player.