Wednesday, August 27, 2008

UI Metaphors and Floundering Users IT support workers.

In the "Shark Bait" forum of ComputerWorld I found this interesting item:
Topic(s):
Submitted by: jeitzen – Mon, 08/25/2008 – 08:45

Got in this morning and found a message waiting for me in the support inbox.

When I push the print screen button on my keyboard to get a screen print to attach to a document, the print screen never prints. Please advise
Thank you

Like I said classic! This user is also a frequent visitor to the support inbox. I am sure she came to my desk, thats her MO. Send a request and walk over 3 minutes later to see if I got it.

Many of the responses were of the obligatory head-shaking "tsk tsk... isn't that user so stupid" variety. Here's one that caught my attention, from a user called "KirkW":

"When I push the print screen button on my keyboard to get a screen print to attach to a document, the print screen never prints."

What exactly did she expect to happen? It almost sounds like she's doing it right - press 'PrtSc' to get a copy of the screen to attach to a document. By why does she expect it to print out? And how was she going to a attach a printout to her document? Perhaps scan it in? (Don't laugh - it's been done). Or is she going to 'attach' the screen-shot to her printed document with a stapler?

Either the attached screen shots are not appearing when she prints the final document, or she's trying to paste a screen-shot and it's not showing up. Or she's as confused as her e-mail suggests. If it were me, I'd pay her a visit and ask her to show me what she's trying to do.

To answer KirkW's question, what she most likely expected to happen is that pressing "Print Screen" would print the screen. And she most likely expects that because the button is labeled "Print Screen". Then YES... she would take that printed screen and attach it to a document that she had printed separately, by means of what we call a "paper clip" or "staple"; which -- contrary to many assumptions -- are still readily available in all office supply stores, and not at all obsolete. Note that when she attaches the hard copy to the document there are NO quotes around the word "attach"... because that's the actual meaning of the word!

Once upon a time paper clips were not dancing animations, or iconic representations of virtual actions, but rather useful items in the physical world. That is still the case to most non-IT business users.

Sadly, the blinders of IT often cause support workers to assume confusion or stupidity on the part of the office staff when neither exists. The woman made a reasonable complaint. The only people confused and ignorant with regard to this story are 1. the programmers who changed the function of the print screen key to do something other than print the screen, 2. the hardware designers who neglected to rename the key to "Screen Capture", and 3. support workers who find it inconceivable that the word "attach" may refer to a physical act and "document" a physical object.

KirkW's final sentence is right on the money, because if he were to actually visit the user he'd likely shake his head at his own assumptions and never, ever mention them to his co-workers lest they embarrass him. As well, he can feel greatly relieved that business users don't maintain websites on which to post stories of "IT retards" who don't even know what a paperclip is for. (No offense to jeitzen or KirkW, but the users would be far more justified than they in doing exactly that.)

The point being this: when we design systems we should not break the metaphors we chose to make the job easier. And we certainly shouldn't forget where they came from. The "paste" icon refers to actual paste. The "cut" icon represents a pair of scissors. When dealing with users we need to remember that those items should operate in some way similar to the physical object... any differences should be logical and appropriate to the context of computing, or we've broken the metaphor. In the case of something like "Print Screen" (or PrtScn, or PrtSc, depending on your keyboard), the act of printing is a computer function, and it's entirely reasonable to suppose that the button should do exactly what it says. Yet it doesn't. That's not the fault of the user, it's the fault of designers, programmers, and engineers who all worked to intentionally break the metaphor... who conspired to be stupid. And it's the fault of support staff who deliberately join the conspiracy and perpetuate it.

That's worth thinking about. It's usually the case that when our users are confused it's our fault. We need to take more care in designing systems that are intuitive. When we see users consistently coming to the wrong conclusions, we need to change the system so that they consistently come to the right ones.

When metaphors get in the way it's better to discard them entirely. When IT support workers get in the way, it's better to re-educate them. So here's today's lesson:
  1. Don't laugh at your users when you are being an idiot.
  2. Don't post proof of your idiocy on Shark Bait.
  3. Instead, listen to the users and either fix the problem (if you're in a position to do so) or educate them (which you're certainly in a position to do).

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