Monday, January 11, 2010

Wolves among dogs

This probably isn't the post you think it is.  It's another in the geek vs normal series I occasionally ramble on about.   I'd like to point out something to my fellow geeks that might save you some frustration. 

We all go on about the id-10-ts we support.  At least in some capacity.  You know you've done it.  It's human.  We also take on a lot of stress trying to figure out how to get through to these said "pebkey" users.  I want you to look at this from a different point of view.  Most of these users are so abstracted from our "world" that they literally don't know how to help themselves.  I'll illustrate with several examples:

Case 1. Someone on your email list (lets call her "Debbie")  doesn't know what the key term in a joke means.  You sent out a very funny missive revolving around a well known sci-fi or comic book character.  Maybe it was a clever one liner about math done in hex.  Whatever the case.  In Debbie's world her only recourse is to embarrass herself and ask for an explanation.  It does not even occur to her that she has the power of Google and Wikipeda at her fingertips.  Even though you've told her before.  Her experience and daily tool set do not include such things.  (she's one of the 10 people that still use phone books too)

Case 2.  Your parents.  They still insist on asking you if you read some story in the newspaper.  Even though you haven't subscribed since - well, since you moved out of their house.  They still insist in finding that said newspaper to look up movie listings.  Even though every time the subject has come up for the last 10 years you just look them up on your phone and answer before they can even find the paper.  You have to explain to your mom why resetting her cable modem fixes her telephone and you have to tell her "yes I got your email" when she invariably calls to check.

Case 3.  End user calls to ask you what your fax number is so they can send you a copy of the error they got on their screen.  Or a user calls you to tell you that a website is being blocked.

This happens to all of you.  Admit it.  You are frustrated every time too.  Mostly because "Debbie" actually works in the IT department, and your mom has gone out of her way (and yours) to read the "dummies" book on home networking and regularly attends a "dealing with modern gizmos" class at the local library.  Your users should engage their brain and understand that you need the EXACT URL not a general description,  and that the process of doing a screen print so that you can fax it is just plain stupid.  They should know better - right?

Nope.  They are normals.  They literally do not know how to help themselves.  Nothing you do will fix this.  Your dad will never look to the internet for help fixing anything.  Your mom will never trust that email thing or txt messages to get to you.  Debbie will always call someone else for help. The users will always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot - especially if it can involve a fax machine.

The reason - these are the tools in their world.  Debbie is probably pretty and sweet - or once was.  People have always helped her so calling someone else is her default tool.   Your parents have always had newspapers, and libraries, and you.  The users live in a telephone centric world.  When you want to communicate with someone not in the room.  The telephone is the primary choice.  Yes they know about email but then they would have to call you anyway to be sure you got their message...

It won't matter how much training you give these people.  They have their toolbox.  They are comfortable with what's in there because those tools have always worked for them.  It's the same reason that your dad never uses the laser level you got him for Christmas 5 years ago.  The worn out stick with the bubble in it has been his reliable friend for longer than you have been around.  Why learn how to use a new tool?  Because he is not capable of seeing the advantage of leveling an entire project at once (or why you would want to).  That's why.

I've done this to myself.  Not very often, but I have.  A great example is the DVR.  When they first came out it seemed like nothing more than an overblown VCR to me.  Yawn.   When a DVR with more than one tuner came out though - I immediately saw an advantage in not arguing with my (then) wife about what to watch / record.  Dumb reason to get one.  After I'd had one for a week or so it became obvious.  The DVR's big advantage is that you are suddenly in control of your tv viewing.  I don't have to stay up late to watch my favorite shows and I no longer have to decide which show I'm going to miss because they are on at the same time on differing channels.  My parents still refuse to use the program guide and choose to channel surf.  They saw a TV guide in the grocery store once and it didn't impress them as being useful.  How is this different?

Now to explain my metaphor.  There was a study done with wolves and dogs.  The wolves were "domesticated" - i.e. raised as pets by humans.  The researchers did several experiments.  Putting the animals in a situation where they needed to escape, or solve a simple problem in order to get to a treat.  In every case the wolves solved the problem themselves.   In all but a very few cases the dogs always gave up almost immediately and looked at, or barked for their humans to come solve the problem for them.  Dogs have been in the company of man since - well since there have been dogs and men.  We are their tools. 

My advice is simple my geek friend.  Relax and be the wolf that you are (and strive to be when you aren't) but recognize two things.  You are a wolf among dogs.  Dogs will never be wolves.

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