Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Reflection: "Stupid Users" Aren't

Here's another reflection in the vein of my earlier post, The Sundowner. You might read this and think it's a "stupid user" story, but I don't think of it that way, as I'll explain below.

When I first started consulting in the late 80s, one of my earliest client was Mrs. Fragensagen (a pseudonym) of Fragensagen Marble and Memorials (also a pseudonym). Mrs. "F" was given a computer by her son, Bob, who lived in California (whom she described as being much more computer literate than she). However, when received it and plugged it it, she immediately called me to help... it was making a horrible grating noise.

The machine was one of those large IBM-XT clones so prevalent in the 80s... the brand wasn't important, as they were being assembled in every Mom 'n' Pop computer shop in this and a dozen other countries. Mrs. "F" was really concerned about the problem, because her son had packed it very well for the trip. When I opened the case I found out exactly how well.

The thing was full of styrofoam peanuts! I'm talking about the computer case itself. They were all over the motherboard, surrounding the power supply and disk drives... everywhere! Bob was so concerned about having the machine survive the trip safely that he stuffed it full of some of the most static-inducing material devised by Man. When Mrs. "F" turned on the machine, some of them had made their way into the power supply and had shot through the fan, spraying a static-laden foam onto the wall behind the desk. It took me a good couple of hours to remove all the packing material from the case extricate the loose foam from the motherboard slots.

It amazed me that the machine wasn't ruined by the static electricity. If the machine had been made today it probably would have been, but it was likely saved by the large size of the old-style components used at that time.

A short time later, Mrs "F" called me back. She had installed all of the software that came with the machine, and now she couldn't find it. I asked what she saw on the screen, and she replied that it was black with the letter C on it.

No problem, I thought. This was a simple matter of teaching her how to use DOS, and possibly installing a menu to make her life a little easier. However, when I arrived, I found that the computer's drive was completely blank except for DOS itself.

"Are you sure you installed the programs?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" she responded.
"Well, let's try it again. Where are the disks?"
"In the computer," she replied.

I opened the case to find about a dozen floppy disks sitting loose on the motherboard. These were the five and a quarter inch Mylar disks. Mrs. "F" knew they had to be installed into the computer, but the slot was blocked by a lever. She never considered that the lever might move (and to her defense, it didn't move easily). Instead, she inserted the disks into the only actual slot she saw... a narrow gap between the floppy disk drive and the hard drive. I removed the disks, showed her how to install the programs, and installed a startup menu.

Now, neither Mrs. Fragensagen nor her son were idiots. They were intelligent people who ran successful businesses. But those of us who grew up with (and in some cases invented) computer technology tend to forget that things that are obvious to us aren't at all obvious to people who are focused on other things... things that are, to them, far more important. Rather than deride them for being "stupid users" we need to look at incidents like these as opportunities for improvement. They're an identification of those areas where we as designers have failed. Which is why this is the only "stupid user" story you're likely to get out of me.

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