Back in the late '90s, I was working for a bank that was investing in some major tech changes. A couple of stories stand out in my mind as a reminder that we shouldn't assume everybody understands technology the way we do, and that even trivial things should be explained down to the smallest detail and demonstrated thoroughly -- even if for just a few minutes.
The mouse: A new perspective
The first story took place after the bank upgraded the old 486 PS/2 machines running the text-based Prologue OS to brand-new Pentium II Windows stations. At the same time, the users also received brand-new mice with tracking balls -- optical ones were not yet widely used.
[ Also on InfoWorld: Read memorable Off the Record stories from 2009 in "Tall tales of tech -- that happen to be true." | Send your IT Off the Record story to email@example.com -- if we publish it, we'll send you a $50 American Express gift cheque. ]
One day, I was visiting a smaller location that had just three tellers. I noticed one of the tellers holding the mouse upside down and rolling the trackball. Figuring that she was in the process of cleaning it, I didn't pay much attention, but I later saw the other two tellers doing the same thing.
It turns out that the tellers thought putting the mouse on its back and rolling the trackball was how to move the cursor on the screen, while clicking was achieved by pressing the mouse on the corner.
They were amazed at how well the mouse worked when I showed them how to use it correctly.
We often don't realize how we have to explain basic tasks to people, even if they've been working with computers for many years. Many details about technology that we take for granted are a novelty to some users.
Another time, a manager called me because her computer wasn't starting. Over the phone, I recognized that the BIOS was losing some settings because the battery was running low, and I told her to enter a command by hand.
But after each try, she told me the computer gave error messages. I was puzzled, because I was telling her the command letter by letter, even down to capitalization.
After a while I got frustrated and told her she probably wasn't capitalizing right.