Web Applications that Talk to Humans (or Don't)

by francine Hardaway on March 11, 2007

I don’t write for geeks. In fact, I’m kind of a geek-to-human translator. For years I have been trying to convince technologists to talk directly to their customers, who might be non-geeks.And at the same time I’ve been trying to convince POHs (Plain Old Humans) to try complicated devices and applications because they did cool things.

But in the early days of software, when most of it was used by businesses, and those businesses had IT professionals, no one was listening and no one cared. Most of my friends thought they would die or retire before they had to learn to use email, and most of them still wouldn’t know a blog from a bog.

Consumers hated the software industry, and the software industry spoke only to itself. But now that has all changed, as social media takes over the web. Social media, after all, is about interaction. Between consumers. Large groups of them.

So I am listening to the opening remarks of Kathy Sierra at this week’s Austin “South by Southwest” (SXSW) conference.Sxsw

Kathy is a former Sun Microsystems employee and now blogger who seems to understand that when you put up a web page called “FAQ” you are not necessarily making your customers happy. And that when people push the button for “HELP,” they don’t want to see yet another navigational maze anymore than they want to hear a voice from India if they’re calling a helpline from New Jersey.

Her talk is based on the assumption that a user asking for help is confused, and that he/she often has a friendly face in mind when he/she tries to access a web-based help menu, not a branching system of further questions.

So he/she doesn’t want a list of equally confusing help choices. In her talk Sierra used an example from Microsoft Excel of a person trying to add up a column of numbers, and she noted the responses that came up on the help page. I just tried this myself with Excel 2003, and it took me three screens of dizzying choices to find out how to add a column of numbers in Excel, which is what I thought Excel was for. I’m pretty computer literate and math savvy, but I would have hit the WTF button long before, if I were really in the middle of something else and thought I was going to get immediate help to continue a task. The fact of the matter is that Excel, the leading spreadsheet, is not at all user friendly or intuitive, and that only after you have taken some kind of training can you use it.

Which is why many ordinary people don’t blog. It’s not that they don’t want to, but they’ve been so daunted by learning Excel or Word that they resist learning any other software. These same people keep their old cell phones because they think smart phones are too smart for them.

These people are not only people in the non-native-to-the-Internet generation, but also many in the generation we like to call NetGen — people who have grown up on the Internet. My nineteen-year-old foster kid, who now lives with me, has a MySpace page, but doesn’t know how to search MySpace for people he knows who might be on it. He text messages, but can’t enter an address on a cell phone unless the person has already called him.

There are many other examples of people who only use one or two of the features on their smart devices, because they can’t figure out how to program them (this started with the VCR and only got worse.)

But it’s more important now, because we interact with the Internet now on our own, as consumers without corporations to offer us software training the way companies used to teach their employees how to use the Microsoft productivity suites. If something is too hard to use, we will GIVE UP. We will then appear in some market study as a low conversion rate or an abandoned shopping cart, when all we wanted was a little HELP.

Kathy treats this as “news,” and her talk is received all over the blogosphere as one of the best presentations of this important conference. It’s as though no one had ever discovered this before. Clearly it will be a while before my job as geek-to-human translator is outsourced.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

max March 13, 2007 at 12:48 pm

i have an imitation ipod and i can’t figure out how to stop a friggin’ song. so what do i do? i hit pause and after a long battery-eating delay, the pod shuts down and the track stops. as annoying as this is will i ever visit sandisk.com for troubleshooting? not in a lifetime! :)

Francine Hardaway March 13, 2007 at 2:01 pm

Did it come with a manual?????

max March 14, 2007 at 2:47 pm

It did come with a manual the size of war and peace! I don’t know where it is now . . . lost forever in a closet full of manuals . . . But isn’t it crazy i have to consult a manual to stop a track? Sheesh . . . I’m not sure if I’m a POH or a dysfunctional geek at this point! :)

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