Of Technology and Terms

The fourth in a series of Learning from Lusers.

“One of our color printers is low on toner.” Help desk: Which color do you need? Irritated user: “It doesn’t say anything about the color. It just says ‘Cyan toner low.’” (Shark Tank)

We know you geeks types. You make up your own language so we won’t understand what you’re saying. It just comes naturally to you, ever since you and your friends made that “unbreakable” monoalphabetic substitution cipher in third grade. How else can you explain error messages like this?

“Regression yielded three matching coefficients for simultaneous equations. This could indicate invalid input.” It means the data file for generating predictions is empty. (Shark Tank)

Why, just this week at work I tried to log into our dreaded behemiathan Host Operations System and Transaction Integrated Logic Environment, only to have it say, “ORA-257: archiver error. Connect internal only, until freed.” Wrong password? No. Expired password? Maybe. Political protest from a sympathizer of the biblio-extremist Librarians Liberation Front? I shudder to think. Sigh. Email tech support. Tech support replies, “It’s broken. We’ll fix it.”

Your secret code is part of your plan to make us fully dependent on you. In the 21st century, power resides with those who control the means of computation. And you use your code to talk about us. “He has an IP address conflict” means “look who’s wearing the ugly shirt.” “Non-system disk or disk error” means “your mother always considered you the dim one.” “PEBCAK” means… no wait, that actually means a hardware malfunction.

Well, every discipline needs its jargon. Practitioners need a means of communicating the technical details among themselves. It’s pretty obvious that we designers should insulate ordinary users from such language. Sometimes users see jargon in error messages they were never meant to see -messages written by developers for developers to facilitate debugging. And, of course, the app will be fully debugged before release. Right. The user will never see an error message like this:

God Da*n Exception 3

Such language in error messages are clearly design slip ups, metabugs on top of the bugs that generated the messages in the first place. But beyond those, it would seem that too often words and phrases that seem perfectly mainstream to UI designers fail when presented to users. Like “cyan toner low.” I’ve no objection to the “low” part. As for the remaining 66.67% of the words….

Customer service supervisor sends a request to this help desk: “We need a toner replacement for our desktop scanner. There seems to be a problem with the scanning image. The image is very light in color.” (Shark Tank)

Neither “cyan” nor “toner” are really computer jargon. However, for most people their first exposure to such words is when they use computers or their peripherals. From the sound of ”cyan” itself and the context, a user might conclude that it’s a brand name. In the context of photocopiers, a “toner cartridge” is, uh, a cartridge that tones. When the toner cartridge is bad, then the copy is too light, apparently not toned enough. It’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that the toner cartridge is a mechanism for enhancing the image processing of the original document. So, a scanner may have one too.

Is there any reason we can’t call toner by a more commonly known word like “ink” or maybe “ink powder”? Is there any harm in calling cyan “blue”? Technically, some geeks may insist, it’s not blue but cyan. These are probably the same geeks that chew out their child’s elementary school art teacher for teaching the fallacy that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. Could scar a kid for life. Oh, and green traffic lights are not very green.

“Delete” is another term that isn’t really geekspeak, but one that people will likely first encounter on their computers. It’s easy to see that such users will think that “delete” means, not “discard,” but “remove,” as in “remove this email from my Inbox and store it elsewhere.” So we get the occasional user conveniently archiving old emails with Delete. And then they are surprised when some emails start disappearing.

Many computer terms lie on the border between geekspeak and vernacular. As computers infiltrated people’s daily lives, they brought their language with them, much like any new technology. Often these terms are ordinary English words re-used perhaps metaphorically in a new technical sense that provides a veneer of familiarity that encourages the transfer. Before the advent of television, a “channel” was something filled with water. I suppose some early television users were confused by the term when used to mean a passageway for programs rather than ships, but now such use is common English. With computers, a relatively new technology for consumers, it’s hard to know what has and hasn’t passed into the vernacular. Guess wrong, and misinterpretations result, especially for those that rely on obscure metaphors.

Tech Support: “I need you to boot the computer.”  Customer: (THUMP! Pause.) “No, that didn’t help.” (Rinkworks)

We “boot” computers, rather than start them, and it has to do with rather low-level details about processors and a certain idiom involving bootstraps, not kicking, or hiking, or goose-stepping, or digging for clams, or any of the other uses for boots that users may imagine. An “illegal operation” is only illegal as far as the operating system is concerned. The users need not fear arrest for visiting a dodgy website that crashes the browser, but understanding such allegoric use of “illegal” requires users to understand something about the relation between the operating system and the applications, assuming they even know the difference between the operating system and the applications. Metaphors can be used to help user understanding, but these metaphors about bootstraps and illegal activities were created to help the programmers’ understanding of the underlying technology. We do the users no favors in using them. However, so insidiously do such terms work their way into our own language, we can forget that our usage may be alien to the users.

I sent a message to all the terminals that read, “Please sign off by 17.15. If you do not sign off voluntarily, your job will be terminated. Thanks.”   …She then explained she had been on the system when it was taken down and she thought that meant losing her job! (Rinkworks)

Frankly, I’m impressed that users even make an effort to understand such messages. You have to give them credit for trying. Many in fact do give up reading messages at some point, but that’s a topic for the next Learning from Lusers. Meanwhile, a few brave independent types soldier on into the jaws of geekspeak..

“She got an error message about a problem with a plug-in… she explained that she had shut down the computer and re-plugged-in the mouse, keyboard, monitor, power and network cables three times.” (Shark Tank)

Sometimes the confusion is between the real world and a figurative or virtual world that dominates much about computers. Tell a user to hit a “button,” and it’s unclear if it’s a physical button or a GUI control. Here’s a couple stories that appeared without apparent irony on the same date on Shark Tank:

“I asked how big his hard drive was,” says [technician]. “The gentleman thought about it for a moment, then placed his hands six inches apart and said, “About this big.”

[The user] reads out the model name. However, we have two generations of that model of PC: one with a small ’space saving’ case, the other a larger, traditional-size unit. I ask him, Is it a big case or small case? He’s silent for a moment, then says, “Well, it’s in capitals.”

Sometimes big means physically big, sometimes it refers to some other quantity. To avoid ambiguity, questions and documentation should use terms that imply whether the virtual or physical world is meant. Virtual buttons, for example, are clicked, while physical buttons are pressed. Providing units can also help. Tech support can ask, “How many inches wide is the computer?” (answer: “about 15 inches”) or, “How many gigabytes is the hard drive?” (answer “jigga-what?”) to cue the users.

“I tell her that the new icon will now be on her desktop…. She starts lifting up her pens, pencils and stapler and looking underneath them” (Tech Tales).

Even terms selected with the user in mind can drift into geekspeak. The desktop metaphor once was central to users’ understanding GUIs, but the desktop has long ago ceased to look like a desktop or be used like a desktop. Today, it’s just the background where a lot of icons mysteriously appear. It’s the place that shows the user’s wallpaper (how many physical desktops are covered with wallpaper?). A desktop computer has a desktop, but does a laptop? Where, among the buttons, are the tools on a toolbar? How much dialog is there in a dialog box? These terms are derived from metaphors that no longer apply.

At this point, you may be wondering if there is any point in using terms at all. Maybe it’s better to use icons instead. After all, pictures are the universal language, right? No, .

I told her that I turned the power on from the switch. She said, “You couldn’t have! It was already on!” I told her, no, it wasn’t, it was set to the 0 position. Then the piéce d’ resistance: “I thought that meant ‘ON’…” (Tech Tales).

Only among digital-minded geeks would a 1 for ON and a 0 for OFF make perfect sense. To users, it could just as easily be “O” for “On” and “I” for, um, “I am not ‘on’ now.” Icons in general have limited value in conveying actions in the abstract world of computers.

“The tech found out that the Colonel didn’t realize the glidepad controlled the mouse cursor, he was sitting his coffee cup on it and pressing the suspend/wake up button. He thought that, because it had a picture of a coffee cup on it, it activated the glidepad to warm his coffee.” (Tech Tales)

So icons cannot replace terms. However, they can be helpful to reinforce your chosen terms, making connections to the right analogies. For example, showing a recycling bin next to the Deleted control in an email app can do much to clarify that “delete” means discard. Put things in recycling, and it may not be there the next time you go looking for it.

Imagine you’re using a web app reading, writing, doing your task when you suddenly get the following message:

Difference Engine cannot volley with you because the object construction is out for object construction care-taking. Please try again later.

What happened? What can’t you do? What can you do? When can you do what you can’t do again?

Okay, here’s what really happened:

Her: I’m getting this error message while I am online with your service [legal researching] and I don’t understand what it means.
Me [Tecchnical Support]: Yes, Ma’am. What does the error say?
Her: It says, “***cannot complete you request because the database is temporarily down for database maintenance. Please try again later.”
(http://www.technogirl.net/ 2000 I think, currently unavailable)

In other words, the error message said “Geekspeak cannot complete your geekspeaking because the geekspeak is geekspeaked for geek-a-ty-speak geekspeak. Please try again later.” Who’s the ‘database’? Is that like the sysadmin? Why is he feeling down? So “database maintenance” means he’s off getting schnockered? Did someone hurt his feelings? Wasn’t me. Honest, I didn’t request anything of him. I was pulling out the legal records myself. “Try again later”? When? Next week? Try what later? I told you, I didn’t request anything? Why are you accusing me?

Database programmers so naturally think of queries or “requests” of a database that they forget it’s just a metaphor. Retrieving database records is no more a “request” for data than turning your key on your car’s ignition is a “request” to start the engine. Why should users necessarily think in the same metaphor? Which metaphor they use depends on their experience, including training, documentation, and the UI itself. If retrieving content means clicking on a link with the mouse, then they won’t see it as requesting anything. They see it as getting the content themselves -there is no intermediary to make a request to. If it’s a “Search” box, then the user is searching, not asking something else to search for them. When is the last time you heard someone say, “I’ll have Google search for that”?

“Down”? Only with computers does “down” mean “not working.” In the vernacular, “down” can mean a lot of things. I had a friend down from Quebec. He’s always down on our health system. Until he came down with a fever. He was really down about it. But then he just downed some antibiotics and he’s okay now. Just last night he was getting down at a club. He went home with a young woman and he, uh, never mind.

Why even mention “the database”? Does a user know or care about the difference between the application and the database? Does “database maintenance” tell them anything about what they can or should do? The only intelligible portion of the message is “Please try again later.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell users what really matters to them: what the user should try again later, and how much later. A better error message would be something like “Legal records not available until about 3:15 pm.” A Help button could tell the curious why it’s unavailable (routine maintenance) and what they can do about it in the future (not a damn thing).

At the daily status meeting with users, IT [admin] reports that the mainframe is running slowly because of month-end jobs. What does that mean? users ask. “I explained that there were more jobs running on the mainframe, which caused things to run longer and impacted getting things done in the normal time period,” [admin] says. “Again they asked, so that means what? I then said slowly, ‘Jobs… are… taking… longer.’ They asked no further questions.” (Shark Tank)

Yes, nothing like condescension to encourage communication, but, hey, at least the admin didn’t threaten to fire the users. Even when the users made it clear that they didn’t understand, this admin was unable to express the issue in terms suitable for the users. This is the sort of geek that writes message boxes that say, “Warning: The frippenzinger will be slow because of scheduled interprocessing,” and when the user clicks Help, it says “Scheduled interprocessing makes the frippenzinger run more slowly, taking more time. Duh.” What things that the users do will it take longer? Receive email? Load a web page? Open files on the server? Get reports printed?

Much jargon can be avoided by telling the users what about their task will be different, and what they should do to prepare for it. For example, once one developer arrived in a server room to find that electricians had used a convenient cubed-shaped server on the floor as a surface to drill out metal conduit, scattering metal shavings all around. So the developer hung a sign on it: “THIS IS A SERVER, NOT A SAWHORSE!” Luckily, it appeared the electricians made a correct interpretation in this case -it could have ended differently. What’s the significance of being a server? Well, apparently it means no sawing and no drilling, but that doesn’t mean no hammering. Just because it isn’t a saw horse doesn’t mean it isn’t an anvil. A message worded in terms of the users’s job would be more like “Electricians: Do not work on this box. This expensive device can be destroyed by dust, shock, vibration, moisture, and metal particles.”

Call 1: me – hello thank you for calling — can i have your screenname please? customer – S.A.M.G.S.U.N.G. Call 2: me – hello thank you for calling — can i have your screenname please? customer – M.I.C.R.O.S.O.F.T. (Tech Tales)

Screenname. It’s the name on the screen. What more do you want? Using terms that relate to the users’ tasks applies to coining new terms too, such as for unique features in your app. Its generally best to refer to its function (what is does for the user), rather than its location, appearance, or implementation. I don’t know why anyone thought “screenname” would be better than the more familiar “username,” but then “username” isn’t such a great term either. If I were to try to improve on it, I’d consider “login name” -the name the user uses to login. Key for this to work is consistent labeling. If the login in box is labeled “sign on” rather than “login,” well, then call it “sign-on name”.

As example of how not to name things, consider “right click.”

i was talking my client through copying a file, and when i asked him to right click on the file he kept clicking, but nothing happened (according to him) i couldn’t do anything to help him till i went to his house, he had been clicking to the right of the file! (Tech Tales)

“Right-click” -what kind of verb is that? It’s like teaching someone to drive by saying, “Now right-step. Good. Now, left-step. No! Left-step!  LEFT!” Naming things by their location (right versus left) can help users find it, but such locations can be ambiguous and ultimately the scheme backfires because it doesn’t connect the term with what the user is trying to accomplish. Combine that with unfortunate homonyms, and you have a recurring tech support nightmare.

User can’t get his e-mail to work, so troubleshooting [support tech] tells him to right-click on the e-mail program icon, then select Properties from the menu. “That’s when we couldn’t understand each other anymore,” [tech] says. “He kept asking me where, and I kept explaining that the properties should be on the e-mail icon, and he kept insisting there was no ‘e-mail’ icon on his desktop.” [Tech]  finally spots the error: “He had heard ‘write click on the e-mail icon,’” she says. “So he didn’t have an e-mail icon — just an icon labeled Click.” (Shark Tank)

One of the things he had been asked to do was to “right click on the desktop”. He did this and said that nothing had happened, so an engineer was despatched.  When he arrived [he saw]… written in large letters on the top of a very large, expensive desk was the [word] “click” (Tech Tales)

I’ve had better success with “menu click” instead of “right click,” describing the function rather than the location, having earlier labeled the mouse buttons “select” and “menu” to make this work. Jef Raskin foresaw the need for such labeling over twenty years ago, and he was 100% right: mice should come from the store with their buttons labeled. It’s not too late to start now -we still label light switches On and Off, and they’ve been around much longer.

Frustrated [troubleshooting technician] finally asks user to try shutting down her laptop so he can walk her through restarting it in safe mode with networking, in case it’s an operating system or virus problem. That’s when the equally puzzled user asks, “Do I need to reboot my laptop, or my computer?”…. “All this time I was walking her through the technical steps attempting to resolve her system problem and, unknown to me… she was performing all these steps on her personal machine rather than her company laptop [that had the problem], simply because I was addressing it as ‘computer’ rather than ‘laptop.’” (Shark Tank)

Designers and technical writers may have to agonize over choosing just the right terms for users, but users are under no obligation to reciprocate. Just as users will try to decipher geekspeak (often unsuccessfully), they will also try to use it (often unsuccessfully). Users learn terms by how the people around them use them. If the desktop is called “the computer,” but the laptop never is, then the former is the “computer” and the latter isn’t. To such a user, calling a laptop a “computer” is like calling your dentist a “doctor”: perhaps technically correct, but not consistent with common usage. Combine that with a bit of the magic heuristic and blind faith to do whatever weird thing tech support says to do (and let’s face it, often a lot of what they want you to do does not make sense), and you’ve got the situation above.

So it should be no surprise that users ask if they can “boot” or “download the internet,” or “copy the internet to this diskette,” or if they wonder where they can get the “latest version of the internet.” By “internet” the may mean the browser, a confusion intensified by MS Windows labeling its shortcut to Internet Explorer as “The Internet” on the desktop. “Boot” may mean “start” (as in start the browser), and download may mean “get to.” Given that many users have only a vague notion of the difference between the operating system, the browser, other applications, the web, and the internet in the first place, such imprecise term usage is all the more likely.

The upshot is that if you’re building on-line documentation, your search or index has to allow for such imprecision. A search for “upgrade internet” doesn’t necessarily have to bring up “Get latest version of Firefox” as the first result, but it should be somewhere in the result list.

Summary Checklist

Problem: Using terms understandable by non-technical users.

Potential Solutions:

  • Use familiar words if possible.
  • Beware of vernacular words used metaphorically to mean something technical.
  • Include terms to clarify context (e.g., virtual versus physical).
  • Reinforce appropriate analogies with imagery (e.g., recycling bin icon with “delete”).
  • Call things by their functional meaning as related to the users’ task, not terms referring to implementation, appearance, or position.
  • Address user’s needs, instead of explaining technology.
  • Allow for imprecise term usage in documentation index and searches.

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