Monday, May 12, 2014

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

My wife sent me the following email and png image today:

I'm trying to understand the techie website, but I've landed on sites that make nooooo sense in their "great debates" over the background containers. Should I allow this change, or shouldn't I? (see attached picture)

From the get-go, the deck is stacked heavily against Joe and Jane Computer User.

First of all, tell me what any of Spybot Search and Destroy’s message means, other than that some program wants to change an important registry entry. And the challenge for the tech folks who know what this means is to do the following:

1.      Explain why this is a bad thing/good thing.
2.      Explain why in plain English.
3.      Explain how to fix things in plain English.
4.      Use plain English.

Not like this.

Or heaven forbid this.

More like this.

And this also is pretty good, though the first is better since it at least gives me a vague why (“has been known to cause problems”).

Note neither is a mirror image of the error encountered; some level of Google-fu combined with faith is required to make the leap from one item to the other.

I’m looking at this from multiple perspectives. I am first of all a computer user, and have long despaired over the technobabble that’s so prevalent in computers. I understand there is a need for jargon and verbal shortcuts in any industry, but where your industry interfaces with the non-techie public, that jargon has to be dropped and/or explained in ways that the ordinary Joe can understand what you’re going on about and, more importantly, why he or she should be concerned about this error message – if indeed it is an error – and what should be done to fix things or prevent those vague problems in the future.

That’s where my second perspective enters: I’m a technical writer, charged with making sure that technical stuff is comprehended, followed, and accurate when we get to the nuts and bolts of the jargon I have to help my users decipher.

And that’s where the problem lies – very few in the tech world are willing to take the time to explain the why. And yet they roll their eyes at folks like us who don’t know enough to know when there’s a potential problem.

Yes, we’re dumb for blindly clicking yes or OK to whatever pops up on our screen. We should err on the side of caution. But the tech world is also dumb for not taking much effort to explain their knowledge in plain English. Take the folks at Spybot, for example. Telling me that some program wants to change the registry is only the first step. Why not arm me with a little knowledge before I have to click the accept or deny buttons? And, yes, Spybot is a free program. If I want better information, I should pay for it, right? Techies don’t have the time to plug in a brief explanation, do they?

Well, they do. They just won’t do it. It’s more lucrative to guard that knowledge, to be sure. Why offer better advice for free when that better advice can be boiled down to “Just bring your computer in and I’ll fix it.”

As a technical writer I'm probably being a bit too harsh on these folks. After all, they can't anticipate their audience will include noobs as well as those with the technical expertise commensurate with the given data. However, as these things are all posted on the Internet I know as a technical writer that these individuals, by posting, have lost control of who their audience is. You never know who is going to come in to your post or forum and ask a question. Thus the hostilities among the techies and the noobs -- a noob comes in to a techie forum, asks a question, and is summarily mocked and dismissed because they didn't realize this was a technical forum. And the mockers are giving their own profession or vocation a black eye by responding poorly to the newbie question.

Yes, you deserve to make money. I know I do as a technical writer. But as a technical writer I’m willing to let you know, for free, that most of you are driving your audience to blindly ckicking OK because you won’t arm us with even a smidgen of knowledge. And the majority of the knowledge you offer is, to put it bluntly, useless.

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