Saturday, 16 January 2016

IT issues are difficult to explain

One of my colleagues from some years ago recently reminded me of a problem which frustrates many people who deal with IT issues. (Which nowadays seems to mean all of us.)

When a person has an IT technical problem, they often get upset and cannot think clearly, with the result that they have difficulty explaining their problem. This can frustrate the listener, which is why many IT people are dismissive of “users”, and come across as patronising.

However this is actually a general issue. Even quite technical people often have difficulty thinking through their problems. That is why when you call a helpline nowadays they take you through a standard checklist, much of which is very boring: have you plugged it in? ... are any lights showing? ... have you switched it off and on again? ... 

A Great Opportunity

In the early part of my career I worked for the financial director of Arup’s, the design engineers for the Sydney Opera House. It was an exciting company to work in because of the leading-edge ideas which flew about the place.

Almost all the other IT staff worked on the technical side of the company, whereas I had the slightly more mundane task of ensuring that the financial systems performed appropriately. 

In fact I was working at a different cutting edge, and regularly had problems which were difficult to solve. Because I worked in a separate building from the rest of the IT staff, if I had a problem I would spend a while trying to solve it and then I would walk along the road to the main office to seek help. On the way I would rehearse my problem in my head – after all, I didn’t want to look stupid when I arrived.

Often I had solved the problem before I reached the other office! 

Benefit of a Silent Listener

I got to discussing this with my colleagues and we agreed that what was needed was a dummy in the middle of the room. When we had a technical problem we would explain it to the dummy, which would be designed to nod as if in understanding. We would keep explaining until we had the problem clear in our own heads, and then Eureka! our plan was that we would have found our own solution. 

We never did design the dummy, but an ex-colleague recently told me that one of his friends used to work in a company where they had a teddy bear mascot. His group were developers, and there was also a support team. If a support team member needed to talk to the developers, first they had to explain the problem to the bear. If they still didn't know the answer after explaining their problem to the bear, then the developers promised to listen.

Don't feel stupid - talk to the bear!

So in future remember that we all have difficulty getting our thoughts clear about IT – even the more technical of us. Don’t worry about sounding stupid if you have a problem – but make sure you explain it to a teddy bear first. 


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