Tuesday, May 17, 2011

User Error

When I worked for The Man, I used to head up a bunch of different types of customer research projects and usability tests for web-based products and sites. We'd do one-on-one interviews, we'd have a research firm videotape customers while they used our banking applications, we'd run focus groups where we watched and listened to people discuss our company and its products from behind a one-way mirror, and then we'd also hold usability tests in this same fashion. For a usability test, a computer at the research facility would be loaded with a beta (think "draft") version of one of our web sites -- something we hadn't yet launched and that usually included a new type of feature or functionality -- and the moderator would ask the interviewees to perform certain tasks. Time and time again, a hyperlink or tab that WE all thought was completely obvious on the site (usually something like "Log out" or "Pay bills") would be missed by almost every research participant. The site's designers and coders would get defensive and blame it on "user error." Which is a polite way of saying, "That person's an idiot."

"User error" is a real term, which was originally meant to diagnose or explain technical difficulties that weren't actually the fault of the computer system in question. Let's say you called in to your bank because you're POSITIVE you're using the right password for their online banking site, but it keeps blocking your access. You have a customer service rep on the line and you're going through every step with them... and then you realize you've had the caps-lock key on. That's an example of user error. Another classic one is when there's a message that reads "Touch any key to continue," and people call in to tech-support lines because they can't find the "any" key.

"User error" came to take on a snide and sarcastic meaning over the years, however, and is something that those in the tech field say when they want to lightheartedly insult each other. Like suppose I accidentally hit "send" on a half-written email to my boss and had copied five of my co-workers... I might hear someone a few cubicles from me holler "User error!" over the wall. (If you get a kick out of this sort of thing, you should check out the stories behind PEBKAC, PICNIC, and the Army/Navy slang ID-TEN-T.)

The reason why I'm writing about all of this is because yesterday I fell victim to perhaps one of the most embarrassing types of user errors. I could not -- could not -- figure out how to turn my husband's computer on.

So here's the situation: On Sunday night, I downloaded Skype (a computer-based call and video application) onto my husband's Mac because my laptop's operating system is too old to run the version that supports video calling. I needed to do this because on Monday at 1 PM I'd been invited to have a video chat with the fine folks at the MTV Movies blog about the one-year anniversary of Lost's season finale. So I got everything working just fine on Sunday night and thought I was ready for Monday's interview.

My husband had shut down his computer Sunday night and then on Monday morning he went to work and I had a 10 AM film screening. I returned home a little before noon, walked my dog, and then went downstairs to my husband's "studio" (he somehow got one of the three bedrooms in our condo for himself) to make sure Skype was still running OK. This is my husband's setup:

As you can see, he's got a LOT of crazy music-related equipment and digitizers and god-knows-what all over the place -- which is why I hardly ever step foot in this room. I don't want to mess anything up or break something. It's all interconnected, including speakers that run out of something that's not the computer itself. Sunday night I had tested Skype to ensure the audio input and output worked. But on Monday, with about 50 minutes to go before my interview, I realized I wasn't exactly sure how to even turn my husband's Mac on. Every time I'd been on it before, it was already booted up.

There was no Power button or switch that I could see on the front of the monitor or on the keyboard. And the computer IS the monitor -- there's no other piece of hardware for it. I reached around and ran my hands all over the back of the monitor (which, as it's situated, is impossible to physically turn around, so I was kind of working blindly) but felt nothing. I figured that maybe a power switch on one of the music-related gizmos was what I needed to use, but didn't want to touch anything unless I was sure. So I left my husband voicemails on his cell and at his office, sent him a text and an email, and hoped he'd get back to me quickly.

But he didn't.

The minutes ticked down and I started getting nervous. I Googled "How to turn on a Mac G4" ... which is actually NOT what his computer even is (it's an iMac). So that's probably why none of the sites that came up provided any guidance. D'oh!

When it hit 12:30, I gave in and sent an urgent message to both the work and personal email addresses of our friend CH, aka The Mac God. Within 10 minutes he'd written back and explained that the power button was in fact on the back of the monitor, but easy to miss if you couldn't actually see it. He included these pictures.

I went down to the studio again and finally found the "button," which I put in quotes because this thing was hardly indented on the back of the monitor at all. I mean, it's ridiculous. Yes, I'm an idiot for not knowing how to turn the computer on in the first place, but it really is a bad design. THIS WAS NOT A CASE OF USER ERROR! Don't even try to tell me that it was.

Then I had another problem: It's now 12:45 and the computer is booted up... but the Skype application is nowhere to be found. (I do know how to search for files, applications, etc... trust me, it had vanished). So I had to re-download the entire app, redo all of the settings, email and leave voicemails for my MIA husband to tell him NOT to call me because the sound of the phone ringing would interrupt my video session, and then had approximately 1 minute to spare before MTV contacted me through Skype.

So that was my afternoon yesterday. The good news is that the video interview went well and was really fun. I think they're going to post it next Monday (May 23 is the anniversary of the Lost finale) and I will include it on Long Live Locke at that point.

The lesson I learned through all of this was to not wait until the last minute to ensure anything having to do with technology is set up correctly. I shudder to think how lame I would have looked at 1 PM if MTV had called me because they couldn't find me on Skype and I had to say, "Um... I can't figure out how to turn the computer on."

Three cheers to CH for coming to my rescue!

- e


Sherylm said...

Well, I'm actually glad to hear it happened to someone else...I had the same problem with my son's iMac when he was off in France and I was supposed to get some urgent information from it. I could not figure out how to turn the stupid thing on although somewhere in the back of my mind I had an idea the switch was behind the screen. Finally after many long minutes of fumbling around I found it. While I love Apple products, in this case, sleek and stylish definitely add up to difficult to use.

seg74 said...

We recently got that same computer after always having PCs (what a difference BTW!) and the same thing happened to me... so don't feel bad. I consider myself pretty tech savvy but should have know that Apple would have an invisible button SOMEWHERE!

Erika (aka "e") said...

Sheryl and seg -

Thanks for making me feel a little bit better. I kept thinking, "Wow, am I an idiot and I just haven't realized it this entire time?" : )

- e

maikib said...

too much stress!! :)