What's wrong with USB sticks that you need 3 tries to plug them in correctly?

  • You've all probably experienced this at least once: trying multiple times to plug in a USB stick correctly, because somehow it isn't intuitive what side goes up. This is especially the case when the USB stick in question hasn't been yet used by the user. But it can also happen with sticks that the user is already familiar with, as confirmed by the experience of the writer of this post.

    Here are some pictures that illustrate this common experience.

    usb stick meme

    enter image description here

    So what's wrong with the design of a USB stick that makes it not intuitive enough to plug it in correctly the first time?

    I don't know; I never seem to have this problem - all I do is look at the port, look at the device to be plugged in, and hold the latter so that it goes into the former correctly first time.

    Hilarious! These cartoons illustrate *precisely* what I experience virtually every time I try to connect a USB plug, not only storage devices, but also cables and the like.

    My theory is that you don't force it enough in the first try, because you are unsure if that is the right side. So in the second try you force a little more until you realize it was right in the first try. It happens to me all the time.

    It's because they live in the 4th dimension, and the only way to get to the correct side is to turn them 3 times. Source: Four Dimensional Maths: Things to See and Hear in the Fourth Dimension - with Matt Parker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wAaI_6b9JE

    What’s wrong with Intel’s explanation. USB plug superpositioning fits the available evidence and conforms to a relevant, well established scientific model of the world. We continue to find more practical applications of quantum mechanics in unexpected places.

    It’s operator error: look first, orient key, insert.

    Personally, my biggest issue with plugging in USB cables into the back of my PC is when it goes in just right, with the correct amount of resistance, yet the device doesn't work. You then look and find that the plug _exactly_ matches the width of the Ethernet port you have just "plugged" it into...

    This doesn't mean that it's in a superposition, it means that USB sticks have non-integer spin.

    Thankfully, we now have USB C which can go in either way!

    What Jeff Zeitlin says is overkill. Ports in devices are oriented the same way, and if they aren't, you notice the first time after buying a new computer and then remember that yours are upside down. Then the plug: that almost always carries a tactile and visual marker that is the top side. In the rare case it doesn't, you can still see at a glance whether there is plastic directly behind the the holes (normal USB-A: up has no plastic) or tell by the shape (USB-B, mini-USB, or micro-USB). It's the same with HDMI, RJ45 (ethernet), etc. Somehow, I do this automatically and never had this issue.

    @Daniel, yes! USB-C only requires two attempts.

    @mcalex maybe. Although if you know that it can go in either way, presumably you wouldn't try flipping it over when it doesn't seem to fit at first.

    I always had this problem, but I discovered the design logic and now only need to look at usb to plug it in first try 97% of the time (as apposed to usb + port). USB logo in image should point away from motherboard (plastic inside should face motherboard).

    "What's wrong" is of course obviously "Physical symmetry without symmetry of use", as the best answer below mentions.

    @Baldrickk This is why I have a short USB 3.0 extension from the back of my case over the top. Now I only have the problem originally posed by the OP :)

    It takes me 4 attempts. 1: try the HDMI socket. 2: try the HDMI socket the other way around. 3: try the USB socket the wrong way around 4: try the USB socket the right way around. After step 3, I will generally put my specs on.

    Reminds me of the story told to me about the funeral of the designer of the USB socket, whose coffin was lowered solemnly into the grave as family and friends wept, was then gently raised again, rotated, and then lowered back in.

    @Aline Never use the force USB 2 twice method! I once broke an USB port on a laptop doing it because I am so confident that is the right side, and it was my friend's laptop too......

    @Aline Do you work for NASA? You should.

    Relevant SMBC: Cables exist in four-dimensional space.

  • In my experience a USB plug needs a bit of pressure to go in the port. It’s enough pressure to make me wary that I might break it if I’m putting it in the wrong way.

    After reversing the plug, it becomes obvious that it does not fit at all. This observation allows me to flip it again and now apply more pressure with confidence.

    So, to the question of what's wrong with a USB stick to cause this action, you're saying it's because of the required pressure?

    The usb ports on my desktop will allow you to push them in the wrong way which makes me very careful about putting them in.

    Or you can jam them into the HDMI port and... well, really screw things up at that point...

    Exactly my point, this came immediately to my mind, after seeing the picture (though before I did not realize). But the next obvious question should be - WHY THE HELL THERE IS NO COLOR CODE which would distinguish the two sides??

    @Nelson ethernet too

    @wondering actually most usb plugs have the usb logo on one side, and that is usually the one that needs to be up when inserting horizontally

    @beppe9000 "most" and "usually" do not really help, as proves this question. Moreover, my experience is different (and definitely so with usb cables). Also, not always one inserts a usb sticks horizontally. And even if there was a logo on one side, why should one interpret it intuitively as "plug in with this side on the top"? Why not to make it more obvious, such as using a color code? Why would people have this problem if the logo should be a solution? So I would strongly disagree if you want to suggest that the occasional logo on the sticks is of any real help.

    @wondering The USB plug has 4 holes: 2 at the "wrong" ("bottom") side and 2 on the "right" ("up") side. these holes let you see which side has the plastic "tab" or not. The USB ports also have 4 tiny metal "lips" that help to keep the USB device in place. When an USB port is loose, it seems to be due to these. In almost all cases, on laptops, the plastic "tab" is on the top. So, rotate the USB plug so that the "empty" holes are facing up. Should help you.

    @IsmaelMiguel I am not looking for a non-obvious solution which would enable me to plug the USB on first try (one has to remember some things to be able to do that). My point is that not making the process obvious (e.g. using color code on both the plug and the device) is strange, it's like making doors where you can't really recognize without an analysis which way they open, if you have to push or pull. As you know, this really happens.

    @wondering If the holes have "color" (aka: plastic on the inside), flip around. Works most of the time. How is this different than color-coding?

    It is different because there is no indication on the device itself (color coding would mean that there is the same color on the one side both on the USB and the plug). Again, I understand that there are ways to increase the chances that you get it right. I am just stating that there might be a much more better and obvious way to do it.

  • Short answer: Design commonly causes misalignment

    Most plugs or ports have a flared edge, beveled plug or some other design that allows for the orientation of the plug to be slightly off and still match. USB doesn't.

    Oftentimes, the first attempt will cause your plug to be aligned too high, slightly twisted, or some other orientation that doesn't allow it to go into the jack. Most USB ports are surrounded by plastic, where you might have the plug touching the edge of the plastic at some corner, and you assume you had it upside down. When you flip it, the fiberglass circuit board edge inside the plug hits the fiberglass circuit board in the jack. This causes the plug to shift to an angle up or down, and you are certain it is upside down. Now when you flip it again, you are more certain that you have it the right way and you shift it around within the plastic hole in the case until it plugs in.

    Almost every usb Plug has a USB Logo on top, often you can feel it with your fingers. Next challenge: Vertical sockets. How do you need to rotate the plug, when you know its upside?

    @allo I've got 5 USB sticks here, 3 are identical at both sides, 2 have printing on one side, but one has the print on the "up" side and the other on the "down" side.

    @Darkwing Did you know, that there is a norm, what side of a micro usb connector should be "up"? I think it was the flat one. But even two different Google devices did it in different ways (iirc the Nexus 7 did it wrong). The manufacturers just do not care.

    An asymmetrical plug design may not help as much as you seem to think: For example, the micro and mini USB connectors are asymmetrical but it is still often not obvious which way they go; if the socket is badly accessible it can be hard even with the bigger and more obviously asymmetrical HDMI or SCART plugs.

    @allo I can imagine that in a crammed device like a smartphone the "wrong" orientation made the connector or attached circuitry fit better. From my experience with car infotainment head units carelessness is unlikely; many people on many levels inpect and test design and prototypes of a device which is crucial for the company's success from all angles.

    @PeterA.Schneider I've struggled occasionally with a SCART or VGA plug when it was out of sight behind a TV, but never when it was right in front of me. The same cannot be said about USB plugs. So while asymmetric design alone does not automatically solve all problems, it's typically solving quite a share of the problems (and in particular avoids the typical USB problem). But yes, there is also a wide range of how well an asymmetric design can help, the more you can not just see but also feel it, the better such visibility problems are solved, for instance.

  • Physical symmetry without symmetry of use

    I'm surprised that so many of these answers are addressing the consequences of poor design without discussing what made it a poor design in the first place. The issue at hand here is that the USB devices have a correct orientation and that correct orientation is indistinguishable from the incorrect orientation.

    In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman lists the following as the 7 fundamental principles of design:

    1. Discoverability. It is possible to determine what actions are possible and the current state of the device.

    2. Feedback. There is full and continuous information about the results of actions and the current state of the product or service. After an action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.

    3. Conceptual model. The design projects all the information needed to create a good conceptual model of the system, leading to understanding and a feeling of control. The conceptual model enhances both discoverability and evaluation of results.

    4. Affordances. The proper affordances exist to make the desired actions possible.

    5. Signifiers. Effective use of signifiers ensures discoverability and that the feedback is well communicated and intelligible.

    1. Mappings. The relationship between controls and their actions follows the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible through spatial layout and temporal contiguity.

    7. Constraints. Providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints guides actions and eases interpretation.

    The non-reversible USB devices lack a good signifier for correct orientation. As Toby Speight mentions in his answer, the USB specification did include the requirement for such a signifier:

    6.5.1 USB Icon Location

    The USB Icon is embossed, in a recessed area, on the topside of the USB plug. This provides easy user recognition and facilitates alignment during the mating process.

    ..but I'd argue that that's not enough for two reasons. First, that specification is easily ignored by USB manufacturers. Second, even with an embossed icon, you haven't communicated to the user what the correct orientation is unless they already know that the icon signifies orientation. A USB icon just looks appropriate on a USB device and isn't going to be noticed by a normal user as an intended signal of information. Bedrooms often have an outlet which is controlled by a light switch in the room. To signify that that outlet is the one controlled by the light switch, it's often installed upside down. To someone who's aware of this relationship, this is helpful, but to someone who isn't in the know, it's up to chance that they discover it themselves or are informed of it. Same with the USB icon. It shouldn't have been expected that people would know what it meant.

    enter image description here

    A similar issue is seen with the design of some doors. Here are a few pictures of doors from The Design Of Everyday Things again:

    enter image description here

    In the first image, the left door must be pulled but the right door pushed even though they have the same handle. In the next two images, it's not clear where on the door you should press (left or right) to open it. Don Norman has this to say about the doors:

    When external signifiers—signs— have to be added to something as simple as a door, it indicates bad design.

    If something as simple as a cable needed an icon to indicate which orientation was correct, it was already poorly designed.

    The solution? Either make a cable that's reversible or remove the misleading symmetry. enter image description here enter image description here

    Icons are also not as useful in poor lighting conditions or when you're reaching around to the back of a computer. Also, some USB cables omit the icon in exchange for a logo, etc.

    There's an interesting circular logic with the spec: if the plug doesn't have the embossed USB logo, then it doesn't conform, and so isn't entitled to have a USB logo...

    They did remove the misleading symmetry with USB Mini. But apparently that was too easy, because then they dropped that for USB Micro.

    @MrLister: But the commonly used USB micro-A plugs aren't symmetric. The top is flat and has narrower, rounded edges, the bottom is wider and has latching pins. The socket is almost always shaped to match, as far as I've seen.

    @Toby, I wouldn't call that circular logic though. You say "entitled to have a USB logo", but the logo is part of the design itself, not a certification of the correctness of an implementation

    I agree with everything you've written here, and Norman's book is one of my favorites. I didn't interpret the question as being focused on what was wrong with the design in the first place, but rather what specifically causes the operator behavior of trying it one way, flipping it over, and then flipping it back.

    @gatkin, the bottom of the question has: "So what's wrong with the design of an USB stick that makes it not intuitive enough to plug it in correctly the first time?". My interpretation is that OP is asking what was wrong with the design that a user is unable to just plug it in correctly with one try.

    When people ask more than one question I tend to prioritize the one in the title, YMMV.

    This is one of the best answers I've ever read.

    Knowing the top side of the plug is very useful in cases where you have horizontal USB ports that weren't installed upside down. It's less useful for the vertically oriented ones.

    The bedroom example doesn't work for me - European sockets are the "USB-C" of power sockets ..

    @HagenvonEitzen - weeeel. I guess somewhat european Too many different ones still, imho :-)

    Good answer. However I don't think HDMI is such a good example. It's hardly better than USB, especially where USB devices are plugged in and out of the front of a PC a lot of the time, whereas HDMI is (mostly?) at the back, so the correct orientation is much harder to find.

    Great answer. I originally thought your outlet picture was going to illustrate how lack of symmetry makes it easy to tell which way to plug something in, even if the receiver end is in a different orientation than expected (which is a problem even for folks who know what the USB icon means), but now I've learned what an upside down outlet is likely to mean! (Also, I think your last two pictures are in the wrong order.)

    USB-C is awesome.

  • The underlying problem, as I think we all know, is that the tactile feedback you get with an incorrectly oriented plug is hard to distinguish from the tactile feedback with a slightly misaligned plug. Given that, your question can be reformulated as: why do many (most?) people mistakenly assume the orientation is wrong when they actually just need to keep trying to get the alignment right?

    Best guess: deciding which way round to hold the plug (and attempt to insert it) was a conscious decision; and since it's hard to predict which way round will work it was also a provisional decision. We have doubt that it was correct, so we're predisposed to try it the other way. Of course we're consciously aware of our failing attempt to insert the plug, and we're trying to get the alignment right, but the ambiguous tactile feedback isn't giving us reason to reject the preconceived notion that the orientation might be wrong. So we give up sooner than we should and flip the plug over.

    Another part of your question asks why the USB designers didn't anticipate this problem. I would observe that the ports USB was intended to replace either had a clearly visible "up" (the D shaped parallel, serial, and game ports) or good tactile feedback for "up" (the round keyboard and mouse ports) or both. The USB designers may have simply underestimated the potential for a problem those ports didn't suffer from.

    After all, it's not like they didn't think about tactile feedback. When you finally slide the plug in it bottoms out and the latching mechanism clicks in, giving very good tactile feedback that you've got it right. A plugged-in USB cable feels solidly connected, and that's the result of deliberate design effort. (Which also fixed a problem the older ports did have: the round ones felt tight when they were loose, and the D connectors felt loose when they were fine (which is why everyone over-tightened the stupid thumbscrews.))

    Very nice analysis, although I will admit to constantly having this problem back in the days of round mouse/keyboard connectors, too.

    Even with the D connectors and round mouse connectors you had to get back there with a light to see which way to plug them in. Don't get me started with the stupid thumbscrews.

    Actually, the designers of USB *did* think of this issue, and that's exactly why USB connectors must have an embossed (tactile) USB logo on them. Unfortunately, there are far too many USB-like connectors missing this crucial feature, as I complain about in my answer.

    @RedSonja: With the round mouse connectors, I always looked first because I was afraid I'd bend the pins on the connector again. The orientation dent isn't very good at preventing that.

    @DarrenRinger Lots of fun wasn't it? Worse is when you have to reach behind it but that goes for all kinds of connectors I would think. Or as RedSonja says those thumbscrews ... I hate those too.

    @TobySpeight A logo for this purpose is already a failure in design (or shows low priority for this goal), you can hardly feel it and crucially, it is easy to build connectors that do not have it as they will still work. If you want to make sure everyone includes your orientation indicator, the plug has to not work if it's missing, the easiest for something like that is to include it in the form. Another drawback is of course, that users have to know the meaning of the sign, which again is not intuitive at all, while asymmetric form is.

  • Failure to follow the USB specification

    I've had trouble with USB devices that completely fail to provide the tactile indicator that the USB specification mandates:

    6.5.1 USB Icon Location

    The USB Icon is embossed, in a recessed area, on the topside of the USB plug. This provides easy user recognition and facilitates alignment during the mating process.

    That's taken from the USB 2.0 specification, but similar wording has been present since the earliest USB versions.

    The same section also specifies which way up the sockets should be:

    Receptacles should be oriented to allow the Icon on the plug to be visible during the mating process.

    Requires you to be able to see the thing while you're plugging it in. Reaching behind a tower this isn't always so. Not your fault, but it means the standard isn't entirely without fault here either.

    The icon is supposed to be embossed 0.6 mm high, so that it's tactile. It would help if there was a corresponding tactile locator on the socket, too - is that what you're saying?

    Ah, if the embossing is sufficient to be tactile, I guess that solves that. (The socket is its own issue, of course!)

    Surprised I had to scroll this far to find the real answer. @LightnessRacesinOrbit , presumably you can look at the device before you plug it in, and once it's plugged in it doesn't matter if you know which way it's oriented, just yank the thing out. Of course, in addition to manufacturers putting the wrong thing on the USB male (looking at you, coolermaster), it's also possible for the USB female to be upside down, as I've seen before on some very budget laptops.

    @Our_Benefactors Was just thinking it's not always that simple if you're fumbling around behind a tower and, fine, you've looked at it a minute ago when it first went in your hand, but it can be easy to forget what its orientation is when it's a little thing that you're reaching around a corner (and possibly turning sideways) to plug in in the dark with your arms outstretched and you're on your back with your knees creaking. But perhaps that's just me....

    What if the USB socket is aligned vertically? Should the icon be on the left or the right?

    @SimonG for nearly all towers, when facing the front of the tower, the "upwards" position will be on your lefthand side, as that position matches how the motherboard was originally installed.

    @SimonG: "*Receptacles should be oriented to allow the Icon on the plug to be visible during the mating process.*" (from the same USB 2.0 spec), so no direction is specified when the socket is aligned vertically and there are no other constraints.

    My desktop tower violates this guideline and it bothered me so much I went in and tried to flip the board the ports were on up side down. But no, the manufacturer had made things in such a way that that was not possible. Infuriates me to no end.

    @SimonG. The Dell Optiplex minitowers we have (in the design vertical orientation) have front USB ports vertical and insert with the logo facing left. Looking around the office, it seems people tend to put the computer to the right of the user; this enables the top of USB sticks to be visible to their user.

    The USB-IF controls the USB trademarks and logo. If they wanted to put some teeth behind the provision you're quoting, they could do so. They've chosen not to. If you want to give the USB folks credit for solving the "which way is up" problem, as you do in your comment on my answer, you also have to blame them for not enforcing it.

    Yes @gatkin - I agree with all of that. It's a shame that the enforcement is lacking.

    The USB ports I tend to have the most trouble with are the ones under my monitor. They point downwards, so there's no "up" side. Unless, of course, I turn my screen 90 degrees to put it in portrait orientation -- which I can do in either direction, so the ports are going to be upside-down in at least one of them. And the "visible during mating" rule doesn't really help either, since neither the ports nor the plugs in them are visible from the front side of the screen anyway.

    Add to it that a computer can have several usb ports which are oriented differently. For example in my old tower, I had front usb 2.0 ports that are oriented one way, and a usb 3 port that is part of an internal card reader, which is oriented the other way... Couldn't really understand how to plug stuck in without having a look at the ports first.

    The specs do not say that there can't be anything else embossed on the plug, right? I have here a USB cable from a well-known company (which I'd better leave unnamed /s), and this cable has the letters "SONY" embossed on the other side of the plug, opposite the USB logo. That doesn't break the specs, does it?

    @FedericoPoloni, if you read Section 6.5.1, you'll see that that's provided for (figure 6-6). Your implication is right, though - there's nothing to say that the manufacturer embossing has to be sufficiently distinct from the USB logo (in practice, I've never had a problem with that).

    It continues to upset me that this isn't the accepted answer, when it is the most factually relevant one.

  • It's not an issue of poor design on the male USB - it's that there's no fixed orientation for the port. When I plug my mouse into my laptop, I get it right every time. But when I plug it into a desktop, there are (in general) three possible orientations for the port: left, right, up.

    Because of this, it doesn't feel like I can ever get it right all the time. If I haven't spent time examining lots of computers, there's no reason why I might think that the 'down' orientation is impossible, and so I have to examine both the computer's port and the USB to get it right the first time. Because of this, it's less effort overall to just attempt whichever orientation I happen to be holding it in. That's where we get to what others described.

    The down orientation is definitely _possible_ but you're not allowed to use the USB logo because it's not a valid position. (IIRC from reading the standards)

    No, proper design helps you align to the port's orientation, just like any other plug.

    @pipe I'm speaking from the position of a user; a priori, I have no reason to know that.

    @pipe but not all kit has a clearly defined up and down anyway. It's less common for things with USB-A sockets but not completely unknown (e.g. Raspberry Pis in some cases

    @pipe, and manufacturers would never dream of ignoring a specification's fine print :)

    I have upside down USB ports on my desktop.

    @immibis The orientation reminds me of SATA ports upside down - and stacked on top of each other! That's just insane but it's done. ASUS does it for example. It's a terrible design but I love their boards so I just deal with it (though I've not upgraded my systems in years now).

  • Problem #1: On USB type A, there is a wrong way. This is alone is a design problem. Headphone jacks, most car keys, non-polarized 120v power plugs, and the newer USB type C connectors don't have this problem.

    Problem #2: USB type A lacks clear and standardized visual indication as to which way is the 'right way'. Most residential keys, grounded 120v power plugs, old 3.5" floppy disks, RJ-45 connectors, and most CD/DVD's make it very clear at a glance which way is the 'right way'. In the case of USB type A, both the plug and the jack lack visual indication without very close inspection

    Problem #3: The USB type-A jack and plug support a very limited range of self-alignment combined with poor tactile feedback for any condition other than correct insertion. This results in users thinking they had an incorrectly oriented plug, when in fact the orientation was correct. As a counter example look at the typical door lock, and notice the indentation in the center of the keyway designed to catch the tip of an incorrectly aligned key. This aids the user in wiggling the key into the correct orientation.

  • There's a lack of a cue from the external casing: in the old days when macs used connectors with lots of pins there was a flat in one place on the circular plug which matched up with a flat on the connector the plug plugged into:

    If you matched the two flats together then the plug and its plug socket were correctly orientated.

    (And the two flat surfaces had icons stamped on them to match up)


    Wait, a pile of LocalTalk cables from the 90s is a museum piece now? I suddenly feel very old.

    @ZachLipton I still have a pre-GB HDD and one that's ~2.5GB. I like telling a friend who was born in the 90s that I have dust collecting on hard drives that are all older than he is! He gets a laugh out of that piss take and it's very easy to turn around.

    @ZachLipton, I've got a bigger collection than that in my attic, including some PhoneNet connectors still in original packaging.

  • The way I see it, it's a bit like docking to the Space station. There is one way to do it right.
    It seems easy, but a slight misalignment requires you to try again.

    I believe this is because , on the third try, you've become frustrated and are now paying close attention to what you are doing. That, then, makes the alignment (and orientation) correct with the right amount of pressure.

    Annoying, yes. Frustrating, usually. The alternative? I've never had a problem with inserting a floppy disk incorrectly. :D

    I'd like to point out that inserting and removing a floppy disk is immensely more satisfying than trying to insert a USB device.

    I assume you know this, but for the benefit of any readers who don't: the 3½ floppy casing and door latch was carefully designed so that of the eight ways you could try to insert it, only one would physically work.

    @gatkin: Ah yes. The 5¼ weren't. I recall some rumor about using this trick to hide data only readable by putting it in upside down.

    You could also physically write protect floppies, so you couldn't accidentally wipe all your data.

    @Joshua, some older 5¼ floppies/drives were actually single-sided, and you could flip them to read the other side, like tapes. And like cassettes, they had write protection notches on both edges. The point is, they were intentionally designed that way. (I remember even _cutting_ the index holes in order to make a single-side floppy double side :)

    @Zeus I remember buying single-sided 5.1/4" discs and, like you, cutting another write-permit notch into the sleeve, so that I could use both sides, even though I was only able to afford the single-sided discs.

  • Just selection bias at work here. You don't notice when it works correctly first time, or when you just have to flip it once. Instead you notice when due to a slight misalignment you end up having to flip it over twice.

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