I really don’t know what is it with lusers and asking technical questions. I swear I have a fruitless conversation that goes like this almost every day:
me: Ok, what’s the problem?
luser: I have like a thing pop up sometimes
me: Is it an error message? What does it say?
luser: I don’t know…
me: When does it pop up?
luser: I don’t know… Sometimes it does, but other times it does not.
me: But approximately when? When you turn it on? When you go on the internet? When you check your email?
me: Yes to which one?
luser: I don’t know. It just pops up whenever.
me: ok, when it pops up next, write down what it says and call me back
luser: Do you think it’s a virus? Am I going to lose all my stuff?
luser: Yes to which one?
me: I don’t know.
People never actually write down the error messages they get. They don’t even consider trying to remember the circumstances in which they occurred. They don’t consider that stuff to be relevant for some reason. But it gets worse than that when you don’t talk to them in person but instead get an email. Or hell, even a blog comment like this one:
Yes, this is an actual comment from this very blog. The original along with my response can be seen here.
Now, I would love to know what was the thought process behind that comment. I mean she stumbled onto my post from 2007 about talking to Dell warranty support people on the phone, only to leave a comment about some sort of a Facebook problem. I mean… I could understand the confusion if I was writing about Facebook but Dell? Maybe she assumed that since her computer is a Dell she should google Dell tech support and somehow found my post? I don’t know.
Either way, can you guys figure out what is Karen’s problem? Personally I have no clue. Karen makes many fundamental mistakes here:
- She assumes prior knowledge.
Like many people Karen assumes that IT folks are walking encyclopedias of computer wisdom, and that all they need to diagnose a problem is a buzzword or two. Basically, they think they are going to call in saying: “My computer is acting funny” and hear nothing short of “Ah, the funny acting thing. No problem, I know exactly what it is. I will just remotely reverse the polarity of your tychon transmodulator and… There you go. All fixed!”
Similarly Karen assumes that I know what FILTER is. I am sure it makes perfect sense in her head because that is the only FILTER she was ever exposed to. She also probably assumes that my IT know-how makes me an instant expert on Facebook. That I somehow magically know where Facebook hides all the settings – even after they change the website layout. I mean, why wouldn’t I? Isn’t that what they teach us computer people in school?
Then again, it might be a bit of our fault to because sometimes we do seem omnipotent. For example, I had a user call almost in tears because their keyboard stopped working. Or rather it was typing the wrong characters. I instantly knew what the problem was: NumLock. The user had a Dell laptop in which NumLock causes the UIOPJKLM block act as a pretend-num-pad. The user was impressed: “Sonovagun! How did you know?”. I knew because I have seen this problem way to many times.
- She fails to use proper terminology.
Most people refuse to learn basic computing terminology. The popular assumption is that you do not need to know what parts of the computer are called in order to use it. This assumption is wrong. You do need basic knowledge – just like you need to learn basic automotive jargon in order to drive a car. You need to know about the fuel tank, about the gears and transmission, about breaks and how they work under different conditions. Same with computers – some basic knowledge is necessary. For example you should know the difference between main memory and storage – so that you don’t freak out about losing data when someone upgrades your RAM. Or at least to recognize what is jargon and what is not.
For example, have you heard this gem: “Hmm… This is weird. Every time I delete cookies it logs me out of Facebook…”
Karen seems to have no clue what she is talking about so she is trying to use some words that she doubtlessly seen on the screen somewhere hoping that I will know what the hell is going on. It was the filter! She assumes that it is a computer jargon of some sort even when it is not.
- She fails to specify the circumstances.
Karen is probably unaware that you can filter and display pictures in many ways. Her issue could be related to the view settings in her windows explorer. Or it could be related to some settings in her browser. Or it could be something she did to her Facebook settings. It is impossible to tell what exactly did she do from just that message.
It is astounding how many people never realize that what you were doing prior to receiving the error may be related to it’s nature. Despite popular belief computers are not magical. Errors don’t just happen. There is always cause and effect – and being able to replicate an error is the prerequisite first step to resolving it.
But it makes perfect sense to Karen, because she probably accesses her pictures in only one particular way. She thinks I do the same thing so describing what she was doing seems redundant and silly – but it is not.
- She fails to describe the nature of the error.
Once again, this seems to be related to the language barrier. Karen simply does not have the vocabulary to express what exactly is happening to her pictures. Are they not showing up at all? Are they missing descriptions? Are they missing tool tips? Who knows.
Troubleshooting over the phone can be torture if the person on the other end does not know how to describe what they are seeing on the screen. Think about it. Hell, try it yourself – describe a simple problem without ever using words such as window, dialog, toolbar, icon, panel, browser, etc.. What do you end up with?
“I get a thing, like on the bottom and it says something script something… And when I open it it won’t upload that green stuff on the side… You know, like where you click… With the mouse? That doesn’t upload…”
Any idea what was the problem above? No takers? Well, let me explain.
Quick aside: I honestly believe that upload and download are the most favorite two words of all my users but I have yet to hear them being used in a proper context. It is pretty much a given that when my user says download he or she really means upload and vice-versa. Installing things from the internet is called “uploading into the computer”. Installing from CD is “downloading into the computer” (you know, just to switch it up). One of my users also “uploaded” his Outlook to the Windows 7 version (installed Office 2007) all by himself. Sometimes I feel like I should distribute a memo with some vocab words on it – then again I don’t want to sound like a condescending BOFH.
Anyways, do you know how I figured out the problem above? VNC. That’s how. If I had to do this blind and over the phone it would take me hours if not days. If you haven’t done this already, get yourself some remote desktop access software. It saves lives.
Now you don’t need extensive jargon vocabulary to describe a problem. I usually tell people to explain their problem to me as if I was a child. Tell me exactly what they see on the screen – describe the box, it’s colors, icon shapes, etc.. But it does help if you know what a toolbar is.
I sometimes wonder if people do this to other professionals. Do people call a plumber and instead of telling him about a clogged sink drain they say something like:
“Yeah, I have a problem with my water related thing. It’s in the room with that window. Do you think it will cost a lot of money to repair?”
Do they visit a doctor to say something like:
“My son has been acting funny lately. I can’t really describe how, but its odd. Do you think its a virus? Does he need antibiotics?”
No, they don’t. That’s because they know a little bit about plumbing and about medicine. They can recognize a clogged pipe versus a leak. They know that doctor will ask them whether or not hey had a fever. They know to take note of symptoms of the problem and relay them to the person they want to fix it. But with computers, all the bets are off. They don’t even try to enumerate the symptoms, and they lack vocabulary to explain what is going on. They don’t know a difference between a window and a dialog or a balloon pop up message. So usually they end up talking about the “thing with the thing that is popping up a thing”.
What is the solution to this? Force people to learn basic vocabulary and concepts. Each school should have a basic computer competency course. Start as early as possible – hell, as soon as they can read basic words they should be learning computers. Just have the kids name parts of the computer and parts of the user interface. Teach the kids about the file system and how to navigate it and arrange files at an early age. Teach them about the conceptual difference between memory and storage. Then just build on top of that. By the time they are in college they should be competent enough to actually articulate their problems. At least one would hope so.
I said it before and I’ll say it again – once an average person knows about as much about computer usage as they know about the inner workings of their car we should be in a much better place as a society. I mean, there will always be stupid people out there – who forget the car needs gas or that the engine needs oil, that tires need air… But even those folks can sort of identify their failure once you tell them about it. When they get stranded or fuck up their engine once, they tend to learn.
People fuck up their computer all the time and learn nothing from the experience. We should change that. And don’t tell me that if people became more competent about using their machines IT sector would suffer. No it wouldn’t. There would still be problems out there that an average person wouldn’t be able to fix themselves. We just wouldn’t be slammed with calls from people who can’t find the save button, or just downloaded 30 GB of malware and rendered the system inoperable.
Btw, I’m only using Karen’s post because it is public. I always feel bad when I copy and paste snippets from personal emails – even if I remove all identifying information. After all private correspondence is private. Karen posted her cry for help in a public forum for everyone to see.