May 12, 2015

Why Consumers Hate Us

It's not usually an all-encompassing kind of hate. Nor is it typically some form of "I hate you so much I won't have anything to do with you!" category of hate. And rarely is it really a "fear of evil" model of hate.

No, it's much more of a simmering, situationally specific kind of anger. It's mostly (but by no means exclusively) directed at large Internet technology firms, and by proxy at the technologists (like many of you, and certainly me) who either directly or indirectly create, deploy, influence, or otherwise impact the Web and its services as experienced by ordinary, mostly non-techie consumers -- who increasingly must use our products whether they really want to or not, at the risk of being left far behind.

Perhaps part of the problem is that most technologists -- coders, SREs, managers, and onward along the long tail of associated job descriptions -- often don't need to deal with users' complaints directly. They may see studies and distilled reports, the most common user comments and questions, and other relevant data, but mostly they never interact with ordinary consumers -- ordinary users -- on a one to one basis, except perhaps when trying to assist a concerned friend or relative (which indeed, can be an eye-opening experience as far as that goes).

For better or worse I receive unsolicited queries looking for help every day. Typically these users have tried the formal support channels and forums -- and have either been unsuccessful at finding answers in the former or ridiculed by other persons in the latter. They start searching around and find my name in association with various articles I've written, or my frequent discussion of technical issues on radio and other venues. In desperation they send me emails -- or often they call me directly on the phone.

Often these queries relate one way or another to Google, simply because I've written so much on that topic over the years (and, full disclosure, until quite recently I was consulting to them as well), but Google is by no means the only firm for which these questions pour in.

Obviously, I'm under no obligation to respond to any of these. But it is my pleasure to do so on a gratis basis, because so many of these persons -- yes, actual living human beings every one -- are so desperate for someone to talk to them about the technical issues that we -- the aforementioned technologists -- tend to assume are so obvious, but that seem so utterly impenetrable to so many users.

"Losers." That's the corruption of the word "users" that you hear all too frequently from technical folks when referring to the persons who actually depend on their products and services. It's usually bantered about in half-joking way, but the essential arrogance that it reveals is often all too real.

Sometimes it's just overall disdain for users in general. Sometimes it's disdain for the minority of users (who can still be enormous in absolute numbers at scale) who are deemed not worth bothering with if they can't "keep up" with the designated pace of change, or who have particular special concerns or needs that just seem like too much bother to address, even at the group rather than individual level.

To be sure, supporting millions or even billions of users is no small or inexpensive feat. And the inclination can be strong to treat non-paying users as a "lower class" for support -- even though they may be responsible for bringing in very significant revenue through ads and other mechanisms.

I won't try to catalogue here the long list of insights I've gained from the many discussions I've had with users -- not losers! -- over recent years. But just a few points may give some sense of the overall picture in key respects.

First, much of what we assume is obvious to all users actually is not. There's the old joke about the tech support guy who told a caller they could press any key on their keyboard to proceed. "I can't find the 'any' key!" comes the presumably hilarious reply.

This isn't as far from the truth as one might think. We've been so successful at "hiding" the workings of our applications that many users are completely lost when something goes wrong. You might be surprised how often I've told users to "start their Web browser" and they tell me they don't know what a browser is.

How can this be? Most people care about information and services at sites and pages, not so much the software that display them. They may have shortcuts that bring these sites up directly from their desktops, or they may use app launchers that even further obscure the process. So it shouldn't come as any additional surprise that many users have no clue as to which browser they're running, don't notice if their search bar or omnibox has been hijacked by an "intruding" service without informed permission, and so on.

We forget that most people aren't clairvoyant and may not have 20/20 vision. We pour endless energy into user interface design. But we still end up deploying obscure icons and "hidden" menus, both often as mysterious as the Sphinx, unless one thinks to mouse over the icon (in which case you might get a useful "tooltip" -- or not) or hover over the appropriate secret symbol (or perhaps empty space!) to make an otherwise hidden menu visible.

In the interests of "pretty" interface design and text display, it's become the fashion to render often important text in low contrast fonts that are pretty much a slap in the face of anyone with aging or otherwise declining or limited vision -- and that decline often starts by the time we reach our 20s. Sometimes it seems like UI designers are getting kickbacks from ophthalmologists and aspirin manufacturers.

And when it comes to hardware, users are even more confused and peeved. These are often not inexpensive devices, but forced obsolescence and feature "hobbling" cycles are growing ever shorter.

Smartphone buyers find themselves stuck in short order with devices that can't or don't receive updates, even for important security-related bugs -- often involving security issues that nobody responsible is even willing to proactively and directly inform users about, even when simple precautions and workarounds are actually available.

Consumers buy set-top boxes or expensive "smart" TVs only to find that support for key features is withdrawn within a couple of years because nobody wants to update them anymore, or necessary APIs have been summarily terminated.

The fact that many of these users could (given the money) buy new expensive smartphones or relatively inexpensive "plug in stick" set-top replacements isn't the point.

The point is that people hate being "bullied" -- and "technological bullying" is a very real phenomenon indeed.

It's utterly unreasonable to expect that consumers will possess understanding of these complicated technical ecosystems. "Who is responsible for updating the phone? The service provider? The manufacturer? The carrier?" "Why can't I view videos anymore on a TV only a few years old, when most people keep TVs in use for around 10 years?" "How come nobody told me that an API ("Hey, Lauren, what the hell is an API?") would be so quickly cut off?

Perhaps the most important point of all is that the effect of all this is much like the proverbial death of a thousand cuts. No single item alone is likely to be a death blow, but by so often essentially treating many of our users like jerks, we are gradually poisoning a well of goodwill that will be very difficult to ever cleanse, and in the process we hand ammunition to our adversaries, many of whom would very much like to bring us down or otherwise control the "eggheads" in their midsts.

We don't need nor expect every user to love us and our technologies. But at a minimum we can strive for them not to hate us -- and perhaps to even respect us a bit.

Ultimately, it's our choice.

Be seeing you.


Posted by Lauren at May 12, 2015 12:35 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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