[Home]HelpingLusers

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SunirShah writes: My parents' computer... -- and most of us sympathize. What to do now?

(JargonFile:luser, WikiPedia:Luser)

Why the word "luser" is bad

Calling a poor schmock, whose computer just doesn't want to print, a "luser" is misleading. It assumes he made some kind of error. But why does the damned printer need the newest driver update from the manufacturers homepage?

Take a basic course in UserInterfaceDesign? and let you be teached, that most so called "user errors" are caused by interfaces which are designed against the human mind.

How to help lusers

Fixing trashed computers.

I find most technical professionals don't understand this. Nobody cares. Nobody cares about bandwidth, wireless keyboards, screen depth, user interface design, or anything like that. People care about doing what they want done. If they can't check their stock quotes because the 50 layers of software underneath don't work, they only care that the stocks aren't working. Sure, the file system may be crashed, but they don't care.

In order to help people who don't care, just make it work. Remove everything but what they need to get their stock quotes, and then stabilize. Often people think they have to have all the software installed for them by Dell. They don't, but they are convinced because computers are voodoo. If the manufacturer said you need a dancing, singing dog, you damn well better have a dancing, singing dog or else the computer will crash. But we as technical professionals all know Dell's software is crap, so just remove it. (By the way, WindowsXP? has a dancing, singing dog in the search form. sigh..)

Therefore, build a stable system. Then make a backup of it (a ghost). When asked to "fix" the computer after it breaks, nuke the existing system (except for their documents, e-mail, and bookmarks) and copy the ghost back on.

How to avoid having to help lusers

Remember that we're all lusers to a certain degree. Drop us in a totally new environment, way out of our depth, and suddenly all we want is for it to work...

Stories


Luser or not?

By the way, I object vehemently to calling users "lusers." Firstly, it lowers sales. Secondly, according to [Orphans Preferred] by SteveMcConnell? it lowers the chick count. Thirdly, it's really against the MeatballMission which is about people. Inclusiveness and understanding are generally good attributes to have. (Then again, chicks like jerks... ;) -- SunirShah

I'd say that it depends on the context. I have no problems talking about lusers, but it doesn't help build a barn, and since we're big on BarnRaising here, we should consider everyone potentially helpful, whether it's lifting the frame or holding the nail bucket.

That being said, Windows 98 is such a dog. It's one of those lame poodle-like breeds that's always getting ear infections and sinus infections because every bit of health was bred away. Windows NT is a dog, too, but a working breed, trained to herd sheep and sleep on the porch. But it doesn't play as well with the kids, so most people would rather have the sick puppy of Win98 in their house. Complaining about people who like the display dog, even when it's always sick and pees in the corner, takes care of some frustration, but we know that we can't replace it with the work dog, or even the wild horse of Linux. --DaveJacoby

What bothers me most is that I don't see a way out: I cannot tell my father to junk MS Word and stick to Wordpad (which I think is excellent and satisfies 100% of his requirements). He wants MS Word. My stepmom wants MS Excel. My mother wants a new scanner and install it on Windows 95. Even if somebody fixed all the bugs in Windows 3.1 she would have upgraded. WorseIsBetter is getting worse! The only way I out I see is in order of preference:

Personally, I use Emacs whenever possible (less complexity), I know it well (education) and I fix bugs within Emacs (improve the software). But where do my parents fit in? --AlexSchroeder

MS Word is safe. Most people can use it to some level of proficiency. If your parents don't use it at work a lot, buy them a good reference book on it. Finding a good book is hard work, but it's worth it. Using a scanner isn't hard either; it's the image editing that's the hard part. Really, scanners aren't consumer items, but they are marketed as such because it makes the scanner companies more money. It's true that anyone can scan an image in, but often it won't turn out very good. And when they post the 1.5MB files to the web, that's just wrong. Of course, people then blame their ISPs for the "slow downloads" of their webpage. What can you do? People don't care, and they are more than happy to yell at the technical people as being incompetent. -- SunirShah

The problem is that somewhere in the last 10 years, computers became a consumer item. So people expect it to work the same way their fridge or their tv works -- you press a button, it does what you want. They don't appreciate how complex a computer is, how many layers of software are working together just to get as far as bootup and the microsnot sound (tm). Furthermore, Lusers blame software designers for making everything so damn cryptic, and technically-minded people for maintaining an air of mysticism about it with all the jargon. Explaining that technical terms are necessary to describe all the concepts and objects involved.... brick wall, meet head. (sigh) Do we seek to exclude lusers? Are lusers naive in thinking they can adequately operate a jet fighter with only the knowledge of paper planes?

Like it or not, the users are writing the checks. I don't think it's unreasonable for someone who's just plunked down two or three grand for a fully loaded computer and software to expect to be able to get some work done. I don't need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to make my car start. Why should I have to understand software internals in order to get my email?

I could spend a lot of money on a set of woodwork tools, but that wouldn't make me any good at carpentry. That said, with a Mac, you can. So we end up blaming MicroSoft yet again for its software design. To make more money, MS had to expand the PC market beyond hackers: they had to convince businesses andd home users that a PC was a vital time-saver. Hence, the rise of the Luser. But the thing is, MS has no interest in making its software easy to use. Because confused people who have just spent a lot of money can be sold books, courses and so on to "get the most out of it". -- anon

I don't buy this. I think MS is trying hard to make things simpler. They just have a particular notion of what is easy to use; and I find that the design does not scale well to other kinds of people. Example: Having dialogs for system settings is nice and self-explaining compared to finding and editing config files (different notion of what is easy to use), but when you have a large number of options, finding the right dialog is harder than finding the right file (doesn't scale for administrators). -- AlexSchroeder


Even Lusers Care

I disagree with SunirShah (for once). Few people are happy yelling. People do care. They just don't know how to care well. We need to teach them how what they do, say and ask has power and can change the world, at least their world. Certainly many users are short-sighted and we encourage that when we give them quick fixes. But what is the alternative? Putting them off just sends them hunting for a new quick fixer. And stops productivity. I've done computer support and consulting at dozens of companies. And the one IT person I remember best was not the smartest, coolest or bravest. She simply had a pattern for solving problems that tickled me. Every time anyone asked her a question, she would ask herself a few questions about the query. Is this the first time? Is there a cheat sheet I could create to hand (or email) to those who ask this? Yes, that is basis of a FAQ, but she did it on paper, on issues you don't normally find in a FAQ. By taking the time to create good cheat sheets, she answered 80% of her inquiries in under a minute. Handing someone a piece of paper has the side effect of shutting them up. Handing them a useful piece of paper has the side effect of generating appreciation and admiration. And getting them to generate useful cheatsheets, well, that's just heaven. The best managers get others to do their job, and thank you for the opportunity.

But teaching them is more than just handing them paper. Just like good parents or good managers, we need to let them know what we want and what we value enough to reward. So, having already posted our criteria for WellFormedQuestions?, we can always ask them if they have followed all or any of the steps. We can remind them that if we have to do their job in addition to ours, it may take a little longer to get back to them. (Or in a politically dangerous place, not tell them. Let them ask others why their stuff gets fixed so fast.) And those who do follow the form get our instant response and appreciation. Yes, we need to tell them what we want. And withhold instant gratification for those who still need training. Never negotiate with a kid who is already holding the cookie. And then bust out with joy as they move in the right direction. My friend Bill helped me understand that, "When you invalidate all small steps in the right direction because they are not good enough, then you make progress toward your goal impossible." So, while we certainly need to stop them in their tracks any time they do something unacceptable, like name calling, there is a bigger picture that needs our attention. The idea is to clarify our vison and, "Catch people doing something right." Then celebrate any step in the right direction.

PS: I love Wiki's and this page in particular. It was a glorious, fun and useful discussion. I wonder if my response was too long? It'd be fun to have guidelines to ponder on such issues. How long is too long before it merits its own page? -- SteveWhite?

You never know until it splits. -- AlexSchroeder

Lusers (not sure about the word myself... ) also lack background culture. Try explaining to the next Luser you meet why they should take 10 minutes to download and install Mozilla. No really, try it.

L: so what does it do?
it's a web browser
L: a what?
it lets you look at web pages
L: ah. like OutlookExpress?
no, that's for email. This is web pages.
L: pause (this is a real conversation so far, by the way. no names!)
it's like InternetExplorer
L: I've got that.
Yup. Microsfot put it on your system. You can use Mozilla instead
L: Why?
It's free. It's better. It's OpenSource. It's not MicroSoft

And the luser doesn't understand any of the above points...

The problem is your answer to the last question. Your friend is asking what advantage is it to him to try Mozilla. You respond, "It's free." So is Internet Explorer. "It's better." Yeah, but how? Does it make the Internet faster? "It's OpenSource." Huh? What's that? "It's not MicroSoft." What's wrong with Microsoft?

You haven't offered this person any reason to try Mozilla. He just wants to surf the web. He has Internet Explorer, it does what he wants and he didn't have to pay for it. Think of it this way. You have a friend who is a photographer. You're looking for a camera. You find one that meets your needs: small, automatic, takes decent pictures, not very expensive. You friend suggests a different camera that is slightly more expensive. You ask why you should get it. He says, "It's almost the same price. It's better. It's manual. It's not Kodak." He's talking to you as if you're a photographer. You're not. You just want to take some pictures at your daughter's birthday.

The problem isn't that users don't understand computers. It's that the professionals don't understand the users. -- StephenGilbert

Professionals are still writing software aimed at other professionals; because this is how it was some 20 years ago. Even Windows does it. Most Lusers I know have no idea that they can copy and paste between different applications! They are amazed when I tell them. Microsoft crams the interface with "useful" shortcuts and "friendly" icons, but all Lusers see is a cacophony of letters and symbols. They either panic, or stick to the very small circle of what they know. Lusers also have a tendency to approach software as something mystical -- procedures are like magic spells which must be learnt, because they can see no logic to the actions they have been taught for, say, opening a file. The most valuable piece of information you can give a luser is this:

Computer software is written by HUMANS, for HUMANS. Therefore, it stands to reason that it was MEANT to be logical, and that it was MEANT to be understood by YOU.

The technical manuals for a nuclear reactor, or the tax laws of a country, were designed by humans for humans, but that doesn't mean they make any sense to me. -- StephenGilbert

It's the old TeachAManToFish? principle. But most books and courses that aim to teach Lusers are written on the "give a fish" principle (sadly, not surprising... if you give a fish, the luser must come back and buy more from you...). I once taught a beginners' course in MS Word, and the first thing I did was rip up the course booklet I was supposed to follow. Because the first 3 times it told the student to save the document, it used a different method: menu, keyboard, button bar. So within the first 3 pages, the luser is hopelessly confused. Written by monkeys, but most manuals and instruction books are the same.

No: it is the software that is at fault, not the manual. A more HumaneInterface would only provide one clear method to save the document, and the risk of confusion would be cut off at the source. Trying to make an interface more humane by ignoring most of it is a hack: compare SecurityByObscurity.

But PowerUser?s demand mutliple ways to do things: they want keyboard shortcuts for when they're typing, mouse buttons, and menus as a fallback. The trick is to hide these things from the beginner.

As for Mozilla, it is in Lusers' interests to support free software. They may not realise it yet, though.

I must add, it is also in the non-lusers interest to "make people realize the importance of supporting free software". That way the time and effort expended on teaching people who do not know can be minimized. -- SelvakumarGanesan

Teaching Netiquette

How did we learn about netiquette? Observing others, and making mistakes. In order to teach others about netiquette, we need show them the error of their ways, possibly without sending them away. We could collect some of the ways to do this on WikiNetiquette.

File Open: a case of patterns

I realised something about lusers today, after tearing my hair out over one yesterday.

Most of us who feel comfortable with computers recognize a "File Open" dialog box ([example]), whether it's Windows9x, XP, MacOsx, Linux, Unix or the old clunky Madewithtext ones seen in DOS applications. We see the fancy colours and the 3D effects, but we grasp the basic pattern:

Lusers don't grok this. They've not yet learned to extract what is useful information and make judgements about the purpose of what they see on the screen. They've not learned to map all File Open dialog boxes they have seen so far to an idea of the Platonic File Open dialog box in their heads: because they don't have one. This is a sloppy way of saying they are very much like small children who refuse to add 2 apples to 4 oranges because they're not the same. There is a level of abstraction which has not yet been attained.

My mother started using a computer with a GUI in her late fifties for word-processing, email and similar tasks. I regularly receive tech-support calls from her in which she describes objects in terms of shapes and colours. She has no grounding in the assumptions that we make about computer environments. The icons on the screen she may describe as "a blob", "a square thing", "like a top hat". Sometimes when a dialog box appears, she is unable to distinguish it visually from the rest of the screen and calls me to ask why the menu bar (which she knows as "the strip at the top of the screen") has gone grey and is not working - it is, of course, because there is a modal dialog onscreen which requires an answer. I have to effectively deconstruct her descriptions of what she can see - a rectangle, some words - to decipher what is happening on her computer and offer appropriate advice. Yet she is quite comfortable with day-to-day usage of her computer, often using things she has no names for, in the course of working a professional in her field, as she has being for many years. Does this make her a "luser"? -- EarleMartin


Eric Raymond wrote on his WebLog "a classification schema for the levels at which users are willing to invest effort to build competence." [1]

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