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“Are we magicians?” You bet we are!

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

I’ve been catching up on my blog reading recently, and was bemusedly struck by an article available via O’Reilly Radar. The article comments on the fact that Gates & Jobs (and others?) have been using the terms “magic” and “magical” to describe the new products coming out.

Jimmy Guterman, the author, guesses that it’s probably a marketing ploy to add some effervescent “wow” quality to software that is probably already useful. I think he’s probably right; it’s all marketing. However, from the user’s perspective, I think code-smiths are viewed as magicians. As the over-quoted Arthur C. Clarke saying goes: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Users, for whom the inner workings of a computer are as black-boxed as the inner workings of the Hubble Telescope, view what we do as magical.

From a direct-end-user-support viewpoint, users perceive problems in such a way that minute, digital gremlins could be as likely a cause of the problem as, say, an incorrect password. If it doesn’t work, it’s a nasty hex upon them. If it gets fixed, we are like unto some voodoo priest exorcising the demons. For them, it might as well be magic!

Just don’t get burned at the stake for it. :)

-sean

Users as Messengers

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Users are messengers. As always – don’t shoot the messenger.

When users do something that’s annoying or irritating, or just plain dumb, it’s likely that there’s a message underneath the inane questions. Underneath the need to check if the computer is turned on is… a message. Don’t lash out against the users for being dumb, but try to see what the message is – you just might be able to solve the problem (and at least cut down on the stupid questions you have to deal with).

I’ve been avoiding the WPMU Forums. The community is bombarded by “dumb” questions constantly, and people are Frequently Asking Questions that aren’t addressed in the FAQ. The people supporting the software (out of the kindness of their hearts) are fed up, and so get pretty snippy. I can’t bear to read the posts on the forums, when most of time the simple questions are answered with irritation, rage, sarcasm, or (in my perception) just plain rudeness by the volunteers there. Generally, I don’t think the attitude is justified towards “Joe User” asking his first Dumb Question, but I totally understand where they’re coming from. It can be frustrating to answer the same question over and over again.

So given all these user-caused irritations, the volunteer time is spent dealing with the users themselves, and not trying to understand the underlying message there: there’s a problem with how the community is set up. The documentation is lax. The FAQ is misleading. The search features on the website are weak. I feel that these reasons are why the users keep acting “dumb”: they follow “standard” procedure – reading the FAQ, etc, and then turn to the forum when those fail. The users are simply delivering a message – “Clean up this community, and I won’t have to bug you.  I can’t find what I need.”

I think this lesson applies to most projects with user interaction. If you’re constantly bombarded with concerns or problems, there’s something to be sorted out there. There’s a message in that which points you back to the cause of the problem. Instead of treating the symptoms, take some time to listen to the fundamental message hidden there, and address the root issue. You’ll relieve the pressure on yourself (less annoying user requests), and also better please the users (they can find what they need without asking for help).

Ultimately, some problems are intractable and can’t be solved.  Not everything is in your power.  But a surprising number of things are.  Taking the time to really listen to the story behind the “Why doesn’t it work?!” request may just help reduce your stress levels.

-sean

P.S. I’m pretty sure that the WPMU volunteers know the systemic problems in the community, really. Unfortunately, because of the project’s reliance on WP.com and its near-zero chance of website changes, I don’t think the project will ever really change. The main volunteers have pretty much given up trying to fix the problems, and it appears to me that they have contented themselves with being jaded on the forums. Any effort to improve the community is generally given no support by the community leaders, even to the point of essentially discouraging any attempts. It’s hard to be hopeful for change in a group when the most influential members are so bitter.