Channeling the tech-challenged user

An IT tale about a tech support call, a missing Palm, and a reminder to rethink basic assumptions

I read about a tech support incident similar to this but thought it was a joke -- until it happened to me.

I was on call one weekend, praying the phone would not ring. My wife and I were out for a pleasant ride in the country when my cell phone went off.

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The caller was a senior staff member who went to the office to do some work on the weekend. She was not technically inclined and tended to get quite impatient with technology -- and we tended to cringe when she called. She was terribly upset because her Palm was missing. It took me a few questions to discern exactly what this meant: The icon for her Palm Pilot was always on her monitor, but today she couldn't find it.

Thus began the next phase of the diagnostic.

Did she open My Computer and look for it there? No, she couldn't "find her computer." (What?)

Did she try rebooting? Yes, but she still couldn't find her Palm.

It wasn't on her desktop? No.

What was on her desktop? Nothing.

The Q&A continued for about 15 minutes. (This was before Bluetooth, so I had pulled over to the side of the road to think better.) What was I missing?

Finally, she mentioned that her cursor had also disappeared. When? Apparently, she hadn't seen it at all during our conversation.

Could she open the CD tray? Nope.

A ha!

Could she try a different plug for her computer? She crawled under her desk and swapped outlets but nothing happened. Then she remembered that her desk light wouldn't come on.

After half an hour on the phone, we had gotten to the root of the problem: The outlets on one wall were out. A circuit breaker must have blown. She got an extension cord, was back in business, and could finally see her Palm icon.

This incident reminds me of a couple of basic "rules" to live by when working with end-users. First, listen and know the person, if possible. We were heading in a wrong direction with the problem solution until I tried to put myself in her position, visualize her situation, and think like her. Second, don't take anything for granted. Check the basics without insulting the person. What may be obvious to tech support may not be obvious to the end-user. I would have noticed right away that the monitor didn't have power, but she didn't.

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