What can users do?

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net?cc=&subject=What can users do?] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net) Freelance writer 3 September 2003

Abstract: Since some users have insisted, Peter decides to

provide a value-add to bad software. In this installment of The cranky user, the author, against his better judgment, details four ways to get some use out of poorly designed systems. Bonus points: Some ways to help improve the software in the long run.

Someone pointed out that I never talk about how people can get along with annoying or badly designed systems -- you know, get some work done. So I think I need to rant about that.

So, what can users do to glean wheat from the chaff of bad software design?

In principle, usability problems should be addressed by encouraging people to stop making unusable things. However, that's not always practical. While you're waiting, you -- as a user -- can do a lot to make up for the hassles and annoyances of modern computer usage.

When all else fails, read the directions

Computer manuals are frequently awful, but that's no excuse for not at least looking at them. Indeed, it's quite possible that the ever-diminishing standards for computer manuals are rooted in the unwillingness of users to actually read them! When users call tech support and ask questions that can be answered by the manual, the message is clear -- more resources directed to support staff, less work on the manual.

I've done technical support work, and I can tell you that the number one way for a user to annoy the staff was to refuse to read the manual. Everyone worked on that manual -- the support staff would pass on common questions and clarifications, and every release of the manual was better than the one before it. When people didn't read it, that was sort of insulting.

In many cases, the only complete documentation is electronic. Many programs like to come with a small paper manual, just enough to get you started, but then they leave you on your own with the tough stuff. Sometimes the online help or documentation is better. Sometimes more complete documentation can be found on the company's Web site.

A few minutes spent reading directions can often get you past an otherwise maddening problem, and may well save you the trouble of calling support. When you get stuck, always look at the documentation. If the manual is at all readable, it just may help.

When one of my video games locked up (MacPlay's port of Fallout for Mac), before I spent a lot of time nagging the manufacturer, I looked at the Web site. Sure enough, the problem was a known one, with a workaround already posted to their site. It may not be as good as a patch would be, but it does work.

Learn to troubleshoot

One of the strangest notions to ever cross my mind is that most people seem to treat their computers entirely unlike anything else they own. If their car starts making a funny noise, people test it. They drive faster, they drive slower. They turn. They change gears. They turn the air conditioner on or off.

By the time they take it into a service station, the problem has generally been isolated or the range of choices has been narrowed. That's a good idea. Do it with computers, too.

When you have a problem with a computer, take the time to try to isolate the problem. If a Web page isn't displaying well, try a couple of different browsers. This isn't a defense of pages that only render usefully in some browsers; such shoddy work has no reasonable defense. But if you identify a browser that decently renders the page in question, you can then do a few things. First, you can get the information you wanted and get on with your work. Second, you can send in an informative description of the problem.

This method applies to everything found on a computer. If a program is crashing, try to discover under what circumstances it crashes (and doesn't crash). Does it crash when you open a certain file? Does it crash only while you're typing?

Try changing other things your computer is doing. If you play background music while you work, stop it. If the computer becomes more stable when it's only running one program at a time, you're probably running Windows.

If you know other people who run the same application, try to find out if they have the same problem. I managed to track down a particularly nasty computer problem only by connecting my disk to a different computer and discovering that the problem went away -- it turned out to be a defective CPU!

A good test is one in which you change as few things as possible; ideally, you change exactly one thing. If I have a file which causes my computer to crash when I open it in Microsoft Word, I'm not going to learn anything by opening a different file on a different computer in WordPerfect. I might learn something by trying to open that file in WordPerfect on my machine or in Microsoft Word on another machine.

Useful complaints, useless complaints

A while back, I wrote about the importance of listening to user feedback. One person pointed out that user feedback is a bad tool for trying to improve a product or Web site simply because of the high signal-to-noise ratio. He's probably right. I had forgotten to mention the importance of trying to find the signal in all the noise.

As a user, you can help make the signal stand out from the noise. Try to make your complaints specific, topical, and well-documented. Avoid ranting too much. A few catchy phrases won't sink you, but when a company I worked at got a feedback message saying "these are the kinds of people who made Hitler's trains run on time," well, I think the staff's need to solve this particular user's problem evaporated. It's easy to disqualify yourself as an evaluator of someone else's company policy. I actually suspect companies are too quick to throw out criticisms, but knowing that they are, you can try to avoid that pitfall.

If you're sending in a bug report, be as specific as possible. List version numbers. Talk about what you tried to do to reproduce the problem and the workarounds you may have found. A friend of mine has been plagued by requests that he beta-test high-profile games because he gives very good feedback. Meanwhile, people are swamping Web servers with requests to "beta test" these games, but all they really want to do is play them early and send in reports like "IT CRASHED!", "THE GRAPHICS ARE TOO DULL!", and "THE PLOT SUCKS!". The guy who suggests a likely structural problem in the code or even a miscalculation in the logic behind the coding, just from the behavior of the bug, is a lot more useful.

Try not to make a complaint about the product a personal complaint about the people at the company. This might be appropriate enough for spammers and telemarketers, but in most cases, the product is the best that the people involved could do. That doesn't mean it's okay if it's useless, it means you should show some basic courtesy.

Asking for advice

One of the nice things the Internet offers is the option of talking to other users who use the same products you do. Use this! Once, I had an obscure problem with a computer, so I sent a note describing it to a mailing list. I got a response five minutes later from a nice guy in Germany. He answered my question perfectly.

One of the best tools, and a little-known one for users, is Usenet. The easiest way to poke around on Usenet is to visit Google Groups. However, you can also get dedicated news client programs. If you're using a product professionally, the time spent reading a related newsgroup regularly can pay off -- and a news client gives you a very convenient interface. Many news client readers are gratis.

Mailing lists abound. Everyone suffers from human nature and the need to be heard -- the world is full of people trying to share what information they have. This suggests an interesting exercise.

Maybe take 15 minutes this week to share that software idiosyncrasy that you know about. Offering good, free advice about a product you're having trouble with could reduce your karmic debt load and just make that evening bumper-to-bumper commute a tiny bit more tolerable.

Random acts of software improvement

It probably depends on whether you want to feel like a victim or a victor. If you are a software victim, these suggestions won't help you much.

To be a victor, even over something small, then explore every avenue you can think of to better use your software -- read each bit of documentation you can find, ask other users, troll through the newsgroups, even pester the manufacturer (in the sweetest, most courteous way you can, so they can't ignore you without feeling like a crumb).

And as a final plum, even if nothing else seems to work, remember that misery DOES love company. Commiserate with other users. It'll help.

This week's action item: Take a few minutes to share some useful tip you've discovered with the world. Pass on a workaround to a common annoyance. Post to a user forum or a Usenet group. Just share a little information. It'll help other people get their work done and you'll feel better.


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach concedes that sometimes you just have to get as much use out of a rotten piece of application software as you can, so he's willing to bite his tongue (almost in two) and show you how to help software companies improve their applications, whether they want to or not. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.