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Friday, July 15, 2011

If too many users are wrong, it's probably your fault

A few recent comments on stories at reddit and Hacker News about user support stories have again shown that some technical types just don't understand other people. There are countless examples and stories of times when someone calls in because they can't get something to work, and the support person thinks they are stupid. Then another call comes in, and another, and so on.

If a bunch of people trip over the same thing, maybe it's not them. Maybe it's your product, or maybe it's just you. You can try to take some kind of high and mighty approach to this stuff and claim to be technically correct and yet totally fail in terms of having your users succeed at performing tasks.

I have done things which had less than ideal initial results with my users. One summer many years back, I was starting to switch users to a caching web proxy. This was before the point where you could just reach into their machines and flip switches or otherwise remotely change their configs. As a result, they all had to do this thing themselves.

To help things happen, I made a page which was prominently linked from our top web page which said "proxy setup instructions", and everyone was instructed to click on it at some point that summer. It did a little magic and figured out if they were already set up properly and thanked them if so. Otherwise, it sniffed the browser and threw them to the right page. So far, so good.

But, there was a catch. I started getting support calls from users. They basically went like this: they'd say they were clicking on the "Edit -> Preferences" or "Options -> Network" stuff, and yet nothing was happening. It didn't make any sense to me the first time I heard this. The machine hadn't locked up, and was otherwise fine, but they were insistent that it would not let them do whatever.

That's when I realized they were clicking on my screenshots. I had taken screenshots of all of the steps in the process, including the part where you drop down one of the menu bar items. Even though my screen shot was just the upper left corner of what my browser looked like and was otherwise incomplete, people were clicking on it.

My response was a quick hack to stop the phone calls and give them a chance to recover by themselves. I made all of those images into links, and made them lead to a page which said "Please don't click me. I'm just an example screenshot, showing what you should do. Click on the actual menu bars and buttons up above, at the top of your browser".

Once that was in place, my support calls stopped cold.

These users knew how to call someone behind a particular bad web site. I imagine most people now cannot or will not do that sort of thing these days. They will just move on to somewhere else. I'd rather not have that happen to something of mine, so I try to watch for such badness.