May 5

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Medieval Tech Support

Saul Griffith sent me a pointer to a hilarious video about medieval tech support for the newly introduced book. It's thought-provoking as well as funny. While comparing the ease of use of books to scrolls might seem a casual jape, it strikes me how similarly trivial are the many questions that unsophisticated users have about newly introduced technology.

I remember back in the early days of the commercial internet, when my friends at UUnet, one of the first ISPs, told me that they had a white board where they kept the daily count of the "DQ" (THE Dumb Question) of the day, which was, "I heard about this internet thing, and I went out and bought a modem. Do I need a computer as well?" We also heard stories about people using removable disk drives as cup holders, and mice as foot pedals (a la a sewing machine.) But even apart from these egregious examples, I watch unsophisticated users struggle with computer programs sometimes just because they don't know where to look on the screen, or what to look for.

Attuning yourself to the gap between what experienced users take for granted and what novices find difficult is, of course, the secret of effective technical writing. And for new users, no one is better at that than David Pogue, NY Times columnist, Emmy-award winning TV journalist, and creator and author of the bestselling Missing Manual book series. David just announced that "'It's All Geek to Me,' the six-episode TV series I wrote and hosted that was supposed to air in April...has finally been blessed with a firm broadcast schedule: Friday nights at 8 p.m., beginning May 18. Each week, they'll air one new episode and one re-run, on two channels: Discovery HD and The Science Channel."

Most of the readers of this blog wouldn't likely think of themselves as the audience for David's show, but I'll bet that it's really worth watching, just to pay attention to what David notices people struggling with and explains for them. Designing great computer products requires understanding your user, and if you're aiming any of your products at beginners, David is a brilliant person to learn from. (Studying his books will provide similar insight. He's great at knowing what needs to be explained, and where people get stuck in the course of some process that was crystal clear to the product's designer, but opaque to the customer.)

But I digress. Go watch that video. You'll love it.

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Comments: 6

  Mike Veytsel [05.05.07 01:48 PM]

Bravo, that video hits the nail on the head.

Anyone developing a tech product should do themselves a favor and man the phones at a helpdesk, if even for a day. It will make you think differently about what's simple or hard, obvious or not.

  Mrinal [05.05.07 09:48 PM]

Tim - it is indeed a funny video.
Since our product is all about tech support for anyone, including grandma, I had posted the same on our blog :)

  Mrinal [05.05.07 09:48 PM]

Tim - it is indeed a funny video.
Since our product is all about tech support for anyone, including grandma, I had posted the same on our blog :)

  Kevin Farnham [05.06.07 02:17 PM]

In a sense, this lesson also applies to vendors of software APIs. The scroll was one kind of information API, the book is another interface to the same data.

What is obvious to the developer of an API component may not be obvious to the consuming developer, who comes to your API with a broad set of experience but without your unique point of view about your own software. Hence the importance of applying standards and including superb documentation with your APIs.

  Martin Kelley [05.06.07 09:58 PM]

It's always fascinating to stand over the shoulder of someone trying to navigate a site I've built. I don't do it enough but it's always instructive. A few years ago I took time out of a board meeting of an organization whose website I created to sit with a user as she navigated the site. She told me I needed a certain link and was spinning her mouse around looking for it. I pointed to the link: it was right in front of her prominently listed on the left-hand sidebar. I saw her head tilt markedly to look at it: she hadn't thought to examine the sidebar at all. Here I was keeping within with what I thought was "common sense" web design vernacular and an intelligent user couldn't see it.

That is a great video, I enjoyed it after I finally figured out which subtitle to watch.

  Adam C. Engst [05.07.07 05:20 AM]

This video went big on YouTube several months ago (after being filmed several years ago) so it's also quite interesting from other perspectives, such as how information travels in fits and spurts, and how attention could outweigh IP value. You can see my TidBITS article about it from February at:

cheers... -Adam

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