What we learn from our customers; what we learn from our coworkers

In the past two days I have had a pair of reminders that the way I think about and use computers may be different than the way others think about and use them.
 
In the first case, I had replied to a message left by a member of an online forum where I volunteer some of my time.  Around the end of April/beginning of May, the old forum software finally crashed after a long series of unresolvable problems.  It was several weeks before the forum was once again operational and running smoothly, this time using different software which meant changes not just to how the forum looked to members, but in the functionality they had with the previous forum software.  Now (at the beginning of June) the member had inquired about were the changes caused as a result in the switch and if there would be some sort of official announcement from the staff telling former members how to re-join the system.
 
I had explained what happened in the simplest way I could, explaining what had happened and closing with a sentence explaining that I did not think a notification was necessary, since the majority of forum members had continued to access the site.
 
Big mistake.
 
The forum member was very upset because with he felt I had implied he was not a participant in the forum.
 
Which, of course, is where things get interesting.
 
While I have never tried to measure it, I have noted over the past couple of decades that online communities  (BBSes, CompuServe, mailing lists, web-based forums, et cetera) follow an "80/20" rule:  Around four-fifths of the messages are created by one-fifth of the user base.   It may actually even be higher; as I said, I haven’t tried to measure it.
 
In the case of the web-connected world, and by "web" I mean visible from search engines and other aggregation technologies, the number of people who consider themselves participants in an online community is probably much, much higher.  I envision a series of matryoshka dolls:  People who visit a community to read a single message or message thread and never join it, people who join to write one message and never return once it is answered, people who join and read all the messages but never write one and so forth.
 
The folks who are readers probably consider themselves part of the community; they read the messages, learn whatever community-specific jargon exists (which is a subject for another post, er, blog entry, in and of itself) and even find humor in the in-jokes and banter in the messages which make up this virtual community.  Let’s call these folks participants, but classify them as passive ones.  By making a decision not to participate in the community, though, they become a sort of ghost or spectre or haunt—present yet unable to interact with the community they observe.  I’m not going to say they are "breaking the implied social contract" or that what they are doing is even wrong in any sort of way.  After all, there are a lot of very good reasons not participate in online communities.  For one thing, after a community reaches a certain size, it’s bound to attract a nitwit or two.  People who are argumentative, are blow-hards or are otherwise so utterly convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that it is incapable to have any sort of meaningful dialogue on those subjects.  You know, nitwits.
 
But to the rest of the community, particularly those who live inside it, those people simply don’t exist.  They literally are not not there.  For that matter, someone who is an active participant in a community may not think of the people who chose to passively participate in the community as being a major part of it.  But they are.
 
And now you see the error of my ways.
 

Flash forward a day and now I’m in a meeting with my staff.  The VP of marketing pops in to ask us about what are pain points are with the marketing department. which, when you think about it, is incredibly cool since most VPs of marketing aren’t exactly known for their consideration and concern for what’s going on in technical support, and we take him up on his request.

One of the things which annoys the heck out of me is long, unspeakable URLs.  You know, the ones you can’t tell someone over the phone and expect to type them in to the Address: field of their web browser because they are all filled with "slashes" and "dot pea aitch peas" and "slash question mark eye dee equals doubleyou ee bees."  It might be easy to type those things, but over the phone, especially with someone who is non-technical, a slow typist or both, it can be pretty painful to get those URLs typed in.

So, the VP gives me a thoughtful look and asks my staff how big of an issue this is with them.

Not very much, it turns out.  They just have the customers go to the home page and then tell them what to click on from there.

*Sigh.*

My whole concept of technical support revolves around giving people the information and tools they need to solve a problem and a little education about the underlying technology, why something happened, what they can do to avoid it in the future and so forth.  All pretty good, and all pretty basic.  But I’m also used to working with people who are, well, they may not be PC-savvy, but can be given a set of instructions and will be able to follow them successfully.  I guess what I’m thinking of is that they are more confident in how to use a computer.  They may not understand how it works, but they feel comfortable using a computer and following a technical support engineer’s instructions.

Part of that is me, I suppose:  I first entered the anti-virus industry in 1989 and stayed in it for five-and-a-half years until early 1995, when I left just before Microsoft Windows 95 and NT 4.0 would appear and make their mark on the world.  During this DOS and Windows 3.1 era, computers were a lot simpler to operate and it was relatively easy to remove viruses from them, uninstall and re-install anti-virus software and troubleshoot various issues.  I was used to working in a higher call volume environment in which I currently find myself, but with much shorter calls on average.  Most just lasted a few minutes, long enough to tell the person what they needed to type in to solve the problem, an alternate step or two if they came across a common stopping point, and how to get back in touch with me if what I told them didn’t work.

Things are a lot different now.  There are a lot fewer calls, for one thing—which, for one thing means that anti-virus software has gotten a lot better in the intervening decade—but the calls you get can be a lot longer.  And the people whom you speak to know a lot less about computers—which, by the way, has nothing to do with them and is through no fault of their own:  computers are just so much more complex these days—and they have to go through many more steps.  And the steps they have to go through aren’t simple "type in" ones.  They are complex ones involving navigating a GUI and finding programs and shortcuts and clicking on them with this and that mouse button followed by selecting this or that to accomplish whatever goal it is they are trying to reach.

Computers have gotten so much more complex and complicated these days (and powerful, inexpensive and easy to use when it comes to day-to-day tasks) that most people know less about how their computers operate then they did when they were simpler, more expensive and had less functionality a decade ago.

There are times when I feel old. 

 

Tags: technical support, anti-virus, computer literacy

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