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IT Support Fun

Entry 1339, on 2011-11-04 at 20:18:44 (Rating 2, Computers)

Being a computer consultant and programmer provides its fair share of challenges. First, there is the temperamental nature of some computers, then there is the constantly changing nature of the IT world, and then there is the ultimate challenge: the users!

I work almost entirely with Macs so I'm not exposed to the same level of troublesome behaviour that my PC colleagues have to put up with. I'm not necessarily saying Macs are totally free from odd and unexplained problems (they certainly aren't) but Apple's control over the hardware, operating system, and some of the software means that most Mac systems suffer less from bizarre behaviour than Windows PCs.

The constant change in the computer world can be seen as both its greatest challenge and as its greatest attraction. Having new technologies appearing so quickly does make working in IT interesting but it also makes it hard to keep up. Supporting whole new technology areas, such as iPads and the extremely capable smart phones we now have, is a challenge but would we really want to do without these cool new toys?

And then there's the users. Few people realise how difficult it can be to support some computer users. It's not so bad if you have direct access to the computer in need of your intervention, or even if you have screen sharing or terminal access to it, but trying to support computer users by "remote control" over the phone is probably the ultimate exercise in frustration!

It's not just computers where this happens, because other forms of technology can suffer from similar problems. A friend recently described an experience she had trying to describe how to change the settings on a new TV over the phone for example. And it's probably significant that TVs (along with almost everything else) are actually controlled by small computers and their on-screen control systems suffer from similar issues to conventional computers.

Ironically it was easier in the "old days" where the primary way to control a computer was through a command-line interface. Asking someone to type a command like "cd /" is often easier than asking them to find the icon for the hard disk and double-click on it. Issues with the "visual" approach include: is the HD icon visible? what does it look like? what is it called? can the user double-click at the correct speed? what display mode is the hard disk window set to display? (and, no doubt, many more) And yes, I know you can control modern computers through a command-line (I love the Mac terminal) but explaining how to launch that can be a major process in itself!

I sometimes wonder what users are thinking. These aren't stupid people but when it comes to working on their computer they can do some odd things. Here's a few examples which illustrate the problem...

First there's the phenomenon of inappropriate use of terminology. A user I was trying to help once told me something like "I pointed my font at the box and clicked but the mouse didn't appear." Say what? I recognise all of those words but I have no idea what they mean in that context!

Then there's the users who just can't respond appropriately when asked a question. I once asked a user "Is the Finder at the front? You can tell that because the first menu at the top-left (next to the Apple) is called Finder." I was assured it is so it was then safe to say "go to the Go menu and choose Connect to Server". But there was no Go menu. That was odd. So I tried a new approach. I said "press command-K" and was informed "it just beeped". Stranger! Anyway after a while I said: look at the top-left of the screen and read out what it says. The response was "an Apple symbol, then Mail, then..." What? Did you say the second word was Mail? I thought it said Finder? Who knows what the explanation for that slight inconsistency was. It's still a mystery!

Many users can't describe real physical objects much better. Recently I was trying to find out what type of computer a person had. She said it was something like a Mac 72. A Mac 72? What is that? The closest thing I could think of was a Power Mac 7200 but that was from the distant past. Anyway it turned out it had a built-in screen, was quite heavy, and didn't have a CD drive. That didn't seem to fit anything either but then the name "eMac" was recalled. So I showed this person an old eMac waiting to be recycled and I was assured it was like that except blue and with no CD drive. When I finally saw the computer it was a white iMac with a CD drive. And one other thing: the person wanted to replace the old machine because it had no ethernet to connect to a broadband router. Except, of course, all iMacs have ethernet built-in! Another mystery!

So, as you can see, working with users is a real treat. It's like a game where they try to deceive you as much as possible and it's your job to help them despite their best efforts to stop you from doing so. It's great fun and I really enjoy it when I finally see through the deception and the truth is fully revealed!


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