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Users Losers?

I have been doing general computer support (along with a lot of other IT related jobs, such as web site design and general programming) for many years now so I have had a lot of interesting experiences in that area. In my last blog entry I discussed some of the reasons for computer problems in regards to the computer hardware and software. Today I want to comment on (or maybe whinge about) how the user contributes to the whole situation.

I mainly work in a university which is (theoretically at least) filled with intelligent, capable people. You might assume, in this situation, that supporting their computing requirements would be fairly easy. Well no, not necessarily!

If I can actually work on the computer then there are usually few problems. With ubiquitous networking it is usually possible to take control of a computer without being physically present, and in many cases I can actually visit to tackle the problem directly. But there are many other situations where phone support is required, and that’s where things get interesting.

Recently I spend 20 minutes trying to establish whether a computer was plugged in to the power or not. I know that sounds ridiculous but think about it: even with an iMac, which has less cables than many other computers, there are still a few to worry about, such as keyboard, ethernet, and printer cables. Some users look behind the computer, see some cables, and assume that it is plugged into the power.

And yes, I did describe the power cable as a “quite thick (about 5 mm) grey one which probably goes through a big hole in the computer’s stand and connects in the middle”. The user saw a fairly thin green one which didn’t go through a hole and connected on the right, and thought that was close enough!

So when I try to figure out why the computer won’t start, after being told the power is connected and switched on, you can imagine my confusion. I often feel like my time is being wasted by help systems which ask if the computer is plugged in to the power. I think “of course it is, get on to the helpful suggestions” but clearly you can’t assume anything!

Sometimes users just seem to be totally blind to what is on their screen. I asked another user to open the Applications folder and tell me if “Image Capture” was there. He said it wasn’t and listed some other programs with similar names: iPhoto, iTunes, etc. I was surprised by this because Image Capture is a standard program installed with the operating system (an install which I had done earlier).

So I said “just type I, then M together quickly”. He said that it had highlighted Mail. Obviously he had typed too slowly and instead of highlighting a program starting with “IM” it had highlighted one starting with “I” followed by another starting with “M”. So I asked him to type a bit more quickly but before he did that he said “Oh, here it is, next to iPhoto”. Yes, and it wasn’t there all along?

But that was nothing compared with a similar issue I wasted about 10 minutes on (these may not sound like long periods of time but if you get 2 or 3 in a row suddenly you start thinking about how you might prefer to be doing something else). All I wanted to do was confirm which program a user was currently using.

On a Mac that is quite easy because the second menu in the menu bar (which is always across the top of the screen) is the name of the program, and that menu is always to the right of the Apple menu which is at the top-left of the screen. So all the user has to do is look at the top-left of the screen, recognise the small Apple symbol and read the word immediately to its right. How hard can that be?

Well, as I said, it took 10 minutes to prise that piece of information from one user I recently worked with.

First of all I assumed a certain amount of basic knowledge on the user’s part and asked her directly which program she was in (that terminology usually works, instead of asking which is the “active” or frontmost” program). She didn’t know, of course.

RIght, so again assuming a certain amount of basic knowledge, I asked what is the name of the second menu. She said she had no menus. Now I really don’t know if she knew what a menu was in this context so I needed to dumb it down a bit. I said “do you see the small Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen”. No, she didn’t see that. I said “what’s at the top-left of your screen”. She replied ” some coloured dots”.

OK, that was progress, there are coloured dots at the top-left of each window. So I said “no, at the top-left of the whole screen, not just the window (of course, I knew for sure she wouldn’t know what a window was but I’m eternally optimistic). No, there was nothing there according to her.

So it sounded like the program was in full-screen mode but this was an older machine with a system which didn’t support that and, even if it did, the coloured buttons wouldn’t be visible then.

So I said “what happens when you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen? Apparently it disappeared. Now, I’m fairly sure it didn’t disappear – more likely she just briefly lost sight of it – but what could I say?

So I was thinking about what I could do next when she said “what does Finder mean?” I asked her where she saw that and she said near the top-left of the screen. I asked “to the right of the Apple symbol” and she replied “yes”. I asked “what did you do to make that appear?” and she didn’t know. She thought it must have been there all along.

At this point a career in – well just about anything except IT – seemed like a good idea, but at least I knew which program was currently active so I could proceed to the next step. But I really wonder to this day what it was she was looking at when I asked her to look for the Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen. And I guess she still doesn’t know what a menu or a window actually is!

Other users seem to take a long time to do basic things, like select from a menu. When it takes a minute to choose an item from a menu I get worried that maybe the user is really doing something else.

Here’s an example: I asked a user if he could see the Apple menu. Yes he could see that fine (obviously this guy is like Alan Turing compared with the previous user). So I said “click on that menu and choose System Preferences”. I waited a few seconds then said “now…”. But he interrupted me: “wait”. OK, I waited, then I said “OK now?”. He replied “No, just wait a minute, you’re going to fast”. At this stage I wonder if this guy is erasing his hard disk or writing a shell script to hack into NASA in the time between clicking Apple, moving down 100 pixels and clicking System Preferences, but after about 30 seconds I could continue. I still don’t know what he was doing during that time.

Finally there is the most creative and dangerous user of all: the user who actually thinks he or she knows what they are doing! This is usually bad… very bad.

I often like to explain why I am doing certain things just so that the user is reassured and can possibly learn something from the experience, but usually it’s just easier to list a series of actions and have the user repeat them on their computer.

Sometimes it becomes apparent that the user hasn’t got to the expected place, so I need to backtrack and find out what’s gone wrong. Often it is because they have taken a “shortcut” or “applied their knowledge to make things easier”. So I think: yes, well you called me because you can’t solve the problem, let’s just try it my way for a change, OK?

Some users have learned a few computer words and are keen to show them off. But their explanations, rather than clarifying the true situation, often just make things a lot worse! For example, I had one user tell me she had “pointed the font at the window and clicked the pointer but nothing happened”. Well I sort of understand all of those individual words but I can’t make a lot of sense out of how they have been combined!

So yes, computers can be bizarre and difficult to understand, but compared with users, computers are a trivial problem. At least computers make a certain amount of sense and follow some basic rules which can be understood after a few years of intense study of computer science. Users on the other hand (despite the fact that I majored in psychology as well as computer science at university) will always be a mystery to me!

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