Product Life Cycle Management (PLM)

Rant: Don't Blame the User

Computer users make for rich pickings. There are whole websites out there devoted to stories about idiotic users who employed the CD/DVD tray as a cup-holder, or who tried to enter their password without first switching on the computer, or who couldn't understand why their machine wouldn't print when they didn't actually own a printer. No doubt many of these tales are apocryphal, but a fair number will have some factual basis.

It would be easy for me to knock out a rant about users. Round up a few prime examples, add some anecdotes of my own, mix them all together with a dash of hyperbole and bosh... instant rant. It would, I assure you, be really quite droll.

Not to mention unfair and childish. Oh, and ageist/sexist, since most of the stories about users involve women or older people. Often old women, in fact.

My mum was an old woman and she struggled with computers right up until she died. No doubt you have, or had, ageing parents of your own. It doesn't seem right to ridicule their lack of technical ability when they have doubtless had many successes and triumphs in other areas of life. It's not clever. If anything it's a form of bullying. So I'm not going to do that.

Though I did. As a young IT nerd I certainly shared a few of my support desk anecdotes with colleagues. And I could barely contain my impatience while I watched my mother slowly and painfully make the connection between the movement of the mouse under her hand and the pointer on the screen. I wanted to scream at her at times, force the knowledge into her brain.

Then I grew up and realised that if she couldn't use the system, it wasn't her fault: it was the system's fault. So, later in her life, out went Windows and in went a quick-booting Puppy Linux installation with auto-launching Skype and a single button to make the video go full-screen. Because her eyesight was fading, we marked the power switch and the 'F' key with brightly-coloured children's stickers.

The result? A computer she could actually use. Switch on, auto-dial her family, press 'F' for full-screen video. She cried the first time she used it successfully.

The problem was not my mother. It never had been. The problem was the software, and the operating system in particular. Designed by nerds for nerds, you had to think in a particular way in order to do even the simplest thing. But because everyone in the development chain was already a nerd – including the testers – nobody made any real effort to change it. Nobody saw it as a problem. You want to use a computer? Then become one of us. And in the meantime we'll take the mickey out of you, mercilessly and relentlessly. This is our gang.

Of course, while everyone was laughing about their gran's inability to successfully edit a config.sys file or remove an annoying anti-virus pop-up launcher from the registry, other companies, often with a fruit-based brand name, were busy thinking, "Hang on. Instead of treating these people like morons, perhaps we could, you know... redesign our interfaces so non-technical people can actually use them?"

The first person to come up with such heresy was shot at dawn, or at least forced to wear last season's black roll-necked sweaters. But the idea stuck. These companies employed psychologists to teach them how people think and interact with computers. They actually watched and listened to real, inexperienced users without sneering. They took what they learned and refined their systems. It took much more effort and a fair whack of processing power to anticipate users' behaviour and adapt to it, but the result was well worth the cost. Increased market share was their reward.

Slowly, computers have become more user-friendly, especially as we've moved to personal devices such as tablets and smartphones. They aren't perfect, but they are certainly improving (with the notable exception of Windows 8). And the user rants have, if not stopped, at least moved down a notch to complaints about individual software packages rather than the machines themselves. Again, what does this tell us? That it's not the users' fault. In all but a few cases, it never was.

So if you're a software or hardware manufacturer and the internet is awash with 'humorous' user stories about your products, it might be time for a redesign. And remember, all you tech-savvy people trying to impress new friends at parties: when you rant about users, the only person who really comes across as idiotic is you.



Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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