The art of explaining tech's novelties

In this IT tale, a techie encounters surprising user assumptions about how to use a mouse and enter computer commands

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.

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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.

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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.

She said, "No, wherever you said capitals I put capitals. But in the case of 'space,' you didn't say what to capitalize, so I typed in 'space' with both types of letters. But the computer still doesn't start!"

Fortunately, there is less of a need to spell out commands over the phone in this era of remote access. But in the rare situations when I have to do it, I make it crystal clear that by "space," I mean the long key at the bottom of the keyboard, while Enter is also a key, not a word.

It's better to have a good laugh over the phone than to have something break, because you never know what can happen when untrained people with a lot of creativity have temporary root access to their machine.

This story, "The art of explaining tech's novelties," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at


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