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25 August, 2009

Try that one

Apart from the bit about choosing a menu item at random, Randall Munroe has seen through my 'tech support' technique perfectly: I don't necessarily know how to resolve a problem my mother might be having with her PC, especially if it's an issue I haven't experienced before, in a package I've never encountered, but I do know how to approach the problem.  And it's not a complex approach.

'Syncrotic', a commenter on BoingBoing's reposting of the xkcd flowchart highlights an issue I hadn't consciously considered:

There's a little more to it than the flowchart implies. Anyone who 'gets computers' understands that most software is designed with certain common conventions in mind. Clipboard functions and text searching are under a menu called 'Edit', printing is always under 'File', etc. We know how to read a dialog box and understand what it's saying.

The truly computer illiterate don't get any of this: to them, everything is a series of carefully memorised incantations, and when something changes, they're filled with frustration or sheer terror at what their "stupid computer" has done to them.

It's willful ignorance of a sort... UIs are mostly made up of words, and the ignorant make a conscious decision to refuse to parse those words.

So on the one hand it's necessary to be patient: conventions which might be familiar to the experienced might be opaque to the tech illiterate and one can't expect users to respond logically if they don't understand the limited evidence available in a UI or dilog box.

Yet on the other hand is that final sentence in Syncrotic's comment, and another comment in the same BoingBoing thread:

My job is not exploring all the features of the software, configuring the system, perusing help files, or randomly monkeying with buttons in lieu of actual output. My job is to get things done here in meatspace. Often, these days, a PC is involved.

When the PC is instead in the way of getting things done, I want it to stop being in the way. Right now. No, I don't want to step through some insipid FAQ or byzantine help file that doesn't address the problem, I want the PC to stop being in the way. Right now.

You - IT guy - understanding this is your job. If you know how to make the PC stop being in the way, tell me which button to push and I will thank you, push said button, and return to my job.

My sister has this attitude, and it's the reason I'm reluctant to help her. Tech support isn't my job, neither my source of income nor some sort of moral responsibility, and I don't respond well to "I don't want to know – just fix it".
I'm entirely willing to help someone who wants to help herself, who's already tried to help herself by at least checking the 'help' menu and who'll use this experience to better handle the next situation.
I'm unwilling to help someone who'll demand I fix something NOW and, worse, demand that I acknowledge software designers are simultaneously incompetent and wilfully malicious in releasing deliberately obfuscated products, thereby forcing 'real world' people to employ the services of expensive professionals. [Paradoxical, considering she's a rather senior surgeon...]
Remember when I had to explain how to get music from CDs to her mp3 player, specifically without introducing the very concept of audio extraction?

If someone "doesn't want to step through some insipid FAQ" and "wants the PC to stop being in the way, right now", I cease to have the remotest interest in what he/she 'wants' – the abusively ignorant can struggle alone.

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