This node serves two purposes, one of which is to pay tribute to those people who use computers everyday but are too irresponsible or too stupid to learn about them. The other is to explain how this node came about.

Part 1 Thank you, to all the people in the world who work on computers every single day of your life day in and day out, but know nothing about them. Sure being a tech support worker is made more difficult by these people, but I think that they make life more interesting. It proves once and for all that no two minds think alike. You may explain something to two people the same way, but neither of them will “process” it the same as the other. This intrigues me.

Computer, to many people, is a word that means internet, e-mail, games, e-bay, porn, or work. Few of these people actually associate it with all of the many things that they can do. Even fewer people actually know how to navigate their computer. Anyone can surf the web, or do their job once they are shown how, but learning to navigate a computer is an entirely different feat all together. I tip my cowboy hat to those who know nothing about computers, I was once like you, but I cared enough and had a passion to learn about them. I think we all should.

Part 2 What spawned this thought is, at the moment my corporation is bringing down the old Microsoft Mail service. We are going to rely entirely on our Microsoft Exchange Server. The Microsoft Mail is old, and starting to cause odd problems. To do this and keep our techs from running all over hell, and keep our mileage bills low, we’ve decided to send out an e-mail telling people how to change their default mailing address book and remove the Microsoft Mail service.
Still sounds simple?
NO!
Now we are fortunate enough to have a... Special Lady working in our building who you might say it the whole reason for this write-up. She made us aware on our test that we were too technical.
OK Betty. Please tell us how we were too technical.

  • By saying "Open Microsoft Outlook 98." instead of saying "Open up your mail."
  • By saying “Click finish and you are done.” Instead of “Now you can go back to what you were doing before receiving this e-mail.” (she spent 10 min looking at the e-mail screen afraid to touch anything)
  • When quoting a line off of a window so that the users would know what to click, we left out the word address in this quote “Show this address list first:” this one stumped her big time.
Ok well these were our fault, but here’s an idea that you are free to distribute whenever you like. THINK FOR YOURSELVES. If you are going to be working with something, learn a little bit about it. Learn how to use it and take care of it.

Once again I may have gotten a little off track, but Thank You to these people. Without you, we would expect too much from the world.


Wow... ever write a node and think that point was missed?
This was all just to get some laughs by explaining a little piece of my day.
If you are going to be working with something, learn a little bit about it.

You mean like, oh I don't know, say, um, people?

After all, it's your job to deal with how they deal with computers. Too many tech support guys out there think that their job is technical, that they are working "with" computers. Sorry, wrong answer! You are working with people working with computers. Learn to deal and stop feeding your own egos off your users' insecurities and ignorance. You're being paid to be knowledgeable about software and hardware - you can hardly claim to be superior just because you know your own job.

Reality check, all you frustrated tech support bods out there. People are more complicated than computers. If you can't come to grips with the fact that they occasionally react in unpredictable and criptic ways and are unable to process and retain certain kinds of information (different kinds for each person, just to make it more interesting), then how can you be surprised they in turn can't grasp the same peculiarities when it comes to PCs?

As for the specific case mentioned above, I've found that screen capture images showing the exact stages through which the users should be going usually do the trick for those who are unsure or unfamiliar with certain procedures. That way there can be no discrepancy between the way you perceived it and wrote it down and the way they themselves perceive it, and fewer mistakes ensue.


The thing is, if as a tech support person you can get past the ingrained need to refer to the parts of the computer, and the associated operating system term, by their correct names, you can make life so much easier. (Orpheum )

If only!

Unfotunately, there is no definitive lexicon of computer terms. Terminology differs from country to country and even from company to company. Is the thing I am writing this on a computer, a PC, a box or a system? I've heard them referred to as all of the above. Am I plugged into a docking station or a port replicator? And am I looking at the monitor or the screen? These multiplications of words only scratch the surface - it gets much more complicated when you get into the bowels of the computer, because end users are hardly ever told the proper names for things like the registry, the command prompt etc.

Two more things that greatly contribute to the communication problems between support staff and their users are the fact that interaction is always over the phone (you can't just point at something, you need to explain in words to a person what and were it is - plus you have no idea if they're doing it right) and, and this is important, the fact that people who ring up tech support are more often than not stressed and worried. They don't know whether the morning's work is going to be salvaged, whether the problem will be fixed in time for them to complete the urgent report that has to be on their manager's desk by this afternoon, or wether they might as well just go home now - or resign.

It is the height of arrogance nd insensitivity to turn around and accuse these people of being stupid, lusers, no hopers or whatever. They are coming to you for help - for support, as the term tech support implies. I just don't get how techies can be so cruel to them and about them. And I have worked Helldesk, so it's not like I'm just preaching from the outside.

OK, technophiles, here is your chance to shine.

Who among you drives a car? RIght. Everyone else sit down for a sec. Both of you.

Drivers. Which of the following can you do?

What? You don't do all the maintenance on your car yourself? You can't even lift the hood and name all the parts of your engine? But you use your car every day! What, are you stupid or something?

Some people don't want to learn the ins and outs of their computers. They just want the damn things to work so they can get on with noding, or running a car repair business, or writing up their rocket science results. Computers can be a means to an end, as well as an end in themselves.


I don't currently own a car, but I have tuned a few in my time.

Human-Computer interaction is a much more difficult field than most people think, because of the nature of computers. When you go to use a hammer, the nature of the work you plan to do is generally predefined. You didn't pick up the hammer so you could could tighten a nut, or sweep the floor or unscrew a light bulb. The hammer has a handle that fits your hand. It has mass that suggests momentum and whacking things. A prehistoric savage could pick up a hammer and know exactly what to do with it from the start. Many tools are this way.

Computers, on the other hand, have no built-in, obvious affordances ("affordance" is a name used by professionals in the field to describe the obvious uses that an object displays: a hammer affords whacking, a baseball affords throwing and so on). Computers have no innate uses to which they can be put. Computers are just what we make of them, they're tools to make tools. Metatools.

There aren't a lot of metatools in our natural environment, we don't have built-in behavior to deal with them. As soon as computers could display graphical data, programmers started displaying graphical metaphors on them (eg, the "desktop" metaphor), but even this is limiting, partly because the channel is limited to vision and sound. A virtual hammer on your computer screen still doesn't afford whacking, except to virtual nails. You can't grab it and feel the mass.

Someday, technology will advance to the point that computers can simulate the real world enough that people's built-in reflexes can just use them naturally. It's going to be a while longer, however (ten or twenty years longer, if you want my guess). In the mean time, we're going to have to make do with evolving standards of behavior and humans are going to have to learn those standards and evolve with them. Get over it, driving a car wasn't that easy the first time, either.

Another thing that makes computers difficult to use is that they are one machine, but they can do lots of different, dissimilar tasks. Have you ever tried to use one of those fancy fold-up tools that has pliers, knife, screwdrivers, corkscrew and who-knows-what all in one? They work, but they're not nearly as good at any one of those tasks as a dedicated tool. You have to learn to use them, too, or you can have them accidentally fold up and cut you unexpectedly. The more uses to which a tool can be put, the more difficult it is to make it good, safe and intuitive at each task. Computers have an unlimited number of uses, so interface design is difficult by definition.

Also, you should remember that Human-Computer interaction is a field still in its infancy - we're still in the first generation of practitioners. Even automobiles were pretty hard to use at the beginning. Here's some text from the original Model "A" Instruction Book:

For average driving the spark lever should be carried about half way down the quadrant. Only for high speeds should the spark lever be advanced all the way down the quadrant. When the engine is under a heavy load as in climbing steep hills, driving through heavy sand, etc., the spark lever should be retarded sufficiently to prevent a spark knock.
...
Always retard the spark lever when starting your car. Starting the engine with the spark advanced may cause the engine to kick back, and damage the starter parts. After the engine is started, advance the spark lever about half way down the quadrant.

So, for lower RPM's you retard the spark, for higher RPM's you advance it, got it? The "spark control rod", by the way, is a sliding control just outside the horn button on the steering wheel - don't forget to retard it every time you start the car or you might damage it!

Human-Computer interaction is getting better all the time (the new MacOS uses the "Eject" command to dismount media - dragging to the trash is no longer recommended - although it still works for oldtimers like me), but for the next few years humans will still have to learn to use computers, just as they have to learn to use the toilet.

Let's look at a fairly common problem, that the users I support at work often ring in with.

Support Staff - "Help Desk, how can I help you?"

User - "Hi there. Um, I can't print. I was printing ok earlier on, but it's stopped working."

Support Staff - "Ok, first thing I'll get you to do, is go to the start menu, up to settings, and select printers."

User - "Huh?"

Support Staff - "The button on the bottom left of your screen, that says start. Click on that. Then click on the folder that says settings. When another menu opens to the right, click on the folder called printers. That's going to open a new window, called printers."

User - "Ok, I've done that."

Support Staff - "Alright, now from the list of printers you can see there, right click on the printer you normally use, and select properties."

User - "Huh..?"


Ok, so perhaps the support person in that example should have twigged to the fact that they were going to have to talk this user through everything, and give detailed instructions on how to carry out basic tasks - the problem remains the same however. When someone who is not too confident using computers goes to get some help, chances are their first conversation is going to be filled with technical jargon, that may as well be in a different language. And let's face it, if you were a brand new computer user, you'd probably be confused as well.

Ever been trying to get someone to open Windows Explorer over the phone? I don't know about you, but I tend to just call it 'explorer'. The user's main exposure to explorer at work? Internet Explorer. How can this not be confusing to someone? Ok, now when you're the type of user who knows how to turn the computer on, enter your password, and open up the applications that you use daily, there aren't really too many different things you use the computer for every day. There are things that machine can do, that you didn't have any idea about. Every day, you boot it up, and double-click on the icons that take you to where you need to be. Then someone asks you to right-click on an icon. Huh? So you learn about right-clicking on an icon, and another menu comes up. Someone asks you to click on a menu option, and you click on it with the right hand mouse button again - nothing happens. Well, you had to use the right hand mouse button to get the menu up, you must use the right mouse button in the menu too right?

And these are just the most basic of issues that normal people run into when using their computers. They're all real life examples - I've run into them more than once before. The thing that you look at on the screen is the desktop - it's always just been the screen to you. People are talking about task bars, and start menus, status bars - and I don't have any idea what happened, but all of a sudden that bar's down the right hand side of the screen! WFT?!

The thing is, that people start to use their own terms for different parts of the computer, and they're comfortable with their terminology. When Judge told me today that she'd saved an important document onto 'the brain', I was perfectly happy. I managed to figure out, by talking to her, that her document was safe and sound in her home drive on the main file server. The network drives, that people could share, that was available no matter where she travelled to, that everyone was constantly told to save all their work onto - that was the brain. Another one I constantly get, when telling a user (normally after a crash) that they were going to have to switch their computer off at the power switch, is something like "you mean the blue button on the hard drive?" So now the black box is the hard drive, to their way of thinking. Well, they're hearing all these foreign terms, and they're gonna get mashed together somewhere along the way. They press the button - nothing happens. The computer must be really broken... Nope - although you just press the button to turn it on in the morning, if you're turning it off at the switch, you have to hold it in for five or six seconds. How many on/off switches do you come across in your everyday lives that behave like this?

The thing is, if as a tech support person you can get past the ingrained need to refer to the parts of the computer, and the associated operating system term, by their correct names, you can make life so much easier. For both yourself and the user you're helping. So the network drives the user has access to isn't actually called 'the brain' - so what? As long as you know that you're both talking about the same thing, you've suddenly created a situation where you're both speaking the same language. Rather than a barrage of words and phrases that mean nothing to them, the user is hearing words that they understand, and they've got an understanding of what you're talking about, and what you need them to do.

I've found that this is a situation that feeds upon itself. Maybe this is the only time they've ever spoken to a tech support person that seemed to understand them, and spoke in words that meant something to them. So they go away, more confident than before, because they can follow the instructions they've been given. The same problem occurs, some time in the future. And they remember what it was you said last time, because they're not grasping for words and terms that they didn't really understand at the time, and sure as hell don't remember now.

Once you are able to talk to your users in a language they understand, and the computer on the desk in front of them is no longer something they don't understand in the slightest, it's incredible what people can achieve. I've helped a certain Judge in the past, when his printer wouldn't work. Turned out it was set to offline mode, but he was most impressed that I managed to fix it so easily. That same Judge impressed the hell out of all of us a little while later. It's a couple of weeks after we've rolled out brand new computers, along with an upgrade of OS from Windows 95, to Windows 2000. Part of the new build is Sametime Connect:

Ben - Gets a new Sametime message on his system, it's from the Judge, asking for some help.

Ben - Starts to help the Judge through the chat window, and apologises if he's being a bit slow replying - he's also helping someone over the phone at the same time.

Judge - Replies to this message - he understands his difficulty. Understands it quite well - because he's sending the message from in the Court room, and he's hearing a case at the same time...

Blew us all away, let me tell you.

Just like cars, computers are a means to an end. However, cars are an established technology, and as a society, we've decided that there are some things that must be expected of a driver - the ability to operate the car safely, and understand what is likely to damage it (Putting it into reverse gear while doing 70 on a motorway, for example is as bad for a car as switching it off in the middle of a defrag is for a computer). In most countries these things must be understood before someone is allowed to drive a car unsupervised. A computer, however, can't kill someone, so the need is much less urgent.1

However, how many drivers can you think of that can't refuel their own car? And what would happen to you if you couldn't change a tire (even after consulting the manual) in the middle of a desert? Computers, on the other hand, are still such an immature technology that it's perfectly acceptable to not understand the concept of a hierarchical file system, or that different drives/mount points correspond to different devices, some of which may not be physically 'in' the machine, and yet still operate one in the course of your work. Society is much more forgiving of someone that can't comprehend that more than one program can run at once, or that doesn't know the difference between memory and backing store, than someone who changes lane constantly, or who can't parallel park in less than 27 actions.

At some point, society as a whole (as opposed to just disgruntled techies) will expect some basic level of competence with computers, in the same way as they do with cars. (Indeed, there is a scheme being piloted by the EU called the ECDL - European Computer Driving Licence). We can only hope, huh?

Some of these 'car tasks' are above and beyond for the mere mortal, but others are expected, to the extent that they are necessary to get a drivers license:

Turn the car on vs Turn the Computer on ; Go for a drive vs Operate software

Obvious, simple. Anyone can do this, to some degree of success. I managed to turn the car on when I was three, but didn't get to drive it very far: I was far more interested in the cigarette lighter. If someone professes to be a 'driver', but can't do these things perfectly, they'd be laughed at.

Put gas in the car vs Manipulate files

If you can't put fuel in your car, eventually it will stop working. If you can't work with files, eventually the drive will fill up with dross, and the computer will stop working. With a poor understanding of how to work with files, it becomes more likely that important stuff will become 'lost'. Knowing to/how to backup files is vitally important in even the most mundane uses of a computer, just as filling up a car is vital to its continued operation

Check the oil vs Run ScanDisk/Norton Utilities

If you can't/don't check the oil, you run the risk of the engine seizing. If you can't/won't run some kind of 'checkup' program, and act sensibly on the results, you could lose valuable data. Unlike the earlier tasks, however, it's borderline acceptable (If you have the money) to get someone else to do it. The techies in PC world will laugh at you behind your back, just as sure as any mechanic would laugh at someone who can't check their oil

Change a tire vs Install Software ; Change the oil vs Install a new operating system, install a new card

These tasks are the first ones that actually need some skill or specialised tools to perform - With careful manual reading, and household tools, it's perfectly possible to change a tyre (All the necessary tools are supplied with the spare tyre), or even the oil. Likewise, installing new hardware or software is (usually) a case of reading the manual and following the prompts. Easy. Ish.

Tune the engine vs Diagnose hardware faults ; Drop the engine out and rebuild it vs Build new hardware

No-one that uses a car is expected to be able to build an engine. If your car goes wrong, the accepted behaviour is to take the car to someone who can fix it, and pay them. It's possible to save money by doing work on your car yourself, but it requires skills uncommon in those who don't fix cars for a living. Same (at the moment) with hardware issues. I have a degree in software engineering, and it's very rare for me to build even simple hardware from components. I've never rebuilt an engine, and I'll wager that Damon Hill hasn't either. There are some things you leave to the experts.

But when you're leaving everything to the experts, there's something wrong.

1 - While a computer can't kill someone, incompetently-maintained computers connected to the internet quickly get r00ted, and inconvenience everyone else by acting as a platform for DDoS attacks, the sending of spam, etc.

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