The Law of Prerequisites

Rahel Anne Bailie
3 min readDec 22, 2015


This story could be called The Digital Time Sink. Perhaps that’s the name of the book — a collection of stories that highlight the daily routines of the digital worker. This particular story has been brewing for a while now, and has now reached peak level of personal frustration. I call it the law of prerequisites.

We’ve all been there. Here’s today’s set of prerequisites. I want to get into my Flickr account. But to get into Flickr, I have to log into Yahoo. (When did that happen, I wonder?) I can’t remember my Yahoo password, and it seems that I can’t get the syntax right for my username, either. So getting into Yahoo is the first prerequisite.

I have the username recorded somewhere. I search my laptop for Yahoo, yahoo, Yahoo!, yahoo! and so on to no avail. Ah, perhaps it’s in Outlook as part of the contact information. So getting into Outlook is the second prerequisite.

I open Outlook, only to find that something odd has happened. Some update has installed itself, and now Outlook wants me to add gmail. I can’t figure out how to dismiss the offending request, and in poking around to figure it out, I seem to have inadvertently clicked something, and now am in an Outlook limbo. I close Outlook and re-open it, but no, I seem to be stuck there. Now, dealing with Outlook is the third prerequisite.

Sometimes changing course is more efficient, so I start up my old laptop, and to see if I can find my Flickr credentials. It’s been a while since I’ve turned on that laptop, so there are Important Updates that need to be downloaded. Oh, and the insistence that I Upgrade to Windows 10 is back. (But the upgrade runs for a long time, and then bombs at the last minute, so I have taken to ignoring the offer.) So installing the updates is the fourth prerequisite.

I could add a fifth prerequisite, and that is to get someone over to figure out how to get Windows 10 to install — many hours of tech support later, I’ve concluded that this will be A Big Deal — but that would be loading the deck.

Close to a half-hour has now passed, and the panic about wasting away the morning is setting in. I mentally note the various technologies I need to deal with, and know that I don’t have the fortitude to deal with them.

Blinded by the Light

The frustrating thing is that this is only one of the several encounters of this kind that I will have during the day. I’ll be slowed down by the change to an interface, to several interfaces. Suddenly, a function stops working. Or something now works differently. Or makes me enter my password anew. Or… or… or… Because of the type of work I do, I understand that this is the new normal. There are Agile teams pushing out changes on a regular basis, and individual applications will “improve” over time. But the cumulative effect on users is wearing. It creates prerequisites (some anticipated, some not) that have unintended consequences.

The constant movement, the constant change becomes wearing. If users are never on sure footing, they can’t operate on auto-pilot and save their cognitive function for the actual tasks at hand. Maintaining a sort of hyper-vigilance is a little like driving on a highway surrounded by erratic drivers. Paying attention to the interface becomes work in itself, and one begins to dread the journey.

Personally, playing Figure Out the New Function or Find the Button, or doing the Forgotten Password dance, has resulted in a near-dread of trying to be productive. The very technologies that were supposed to make it easier to get things done are now getting in the way. We may find that the constant drip-feed of changes is having the opposite of the intended effect. It’s a form of user fatigue, I suppose, and bears studying to find out what the real cost is to users.



Rahel Anne Bailie

Content operations, content strategy, content management — content, seriously