% fortune -ae paul murphy

What users care about (2)

One of the oddest things about a lot of discussion going in in media blogs like this one is that our stereotypical user is someone whose characteristics we all know, but no one actually defines.

Why? because we know that real users aren't like us: we care about computing, they don't - and in most of our decisions we're not doing our jobs, we're protecting our jobs.

Thus it's true, for example, that some people working as lawyers can tell you how important Microsoft's restricted document format is to their firms, but the vast majority haven't a clue about that because they're fundamentally focused on billable hours, their clients, and the law - not computers. Similarly, you can take any job and find people doing it who're interested in computers, but you'll find more people who simply couldn't care less about them as long as the things don't get in the way of getting their jobs done.

It's also true that every company of any size has its share of people classified as user department employees who have long since stopped doing their actual jobs to become, instead, local PC cheerleaders and ex-officio IT staff - there' always a "Richard" down the hall who will recover your files for you, set up your personal (and unmaintainable) access application, or help you sneak the latest wireless gear or MS product past those idiots running IT.

There's a quick bottom line on those people: they're the ones business management sends to IT meetings, but they're not user representatives: at best they're unacknowledged IT staff, at worst they're a a fifth column: unpaid Microsoft sales staff.

To recognize a real user, look at what they do: if they're not using their computers to contribute to the job their departments were constituted to do, they're not really users, their input doesn't count as user input, and their expectations don't count as user expectations.

Real users are precisely that: users, not misplaced techies - and their interests don't usually include the PC world. This simple reality: that real users simply don't care, is why the PC has been such a commercial success - the people who sell and support the things care a lot, but the people working in Accounts Payable or on the production floor don't. To them, Vista's Aero is as irrelevant as Apple's Aqua - what they want is the quickest way to bypass all of that to start their application.

If you've ever rolled out a new desktop to ordinary users you'll have seen this: they don't ask how the system works, they don't ask about productivity benefits; what they do instead is let you talk - flicking happily through multiple screens and explaining all kinds of neat stuff - until they eventually interupt to ask that you "just show me how to start [my application]" - and thereby force you to realize that they haven't heard a thing you've said.

Why? because they just don't care about any if it - all this fancy PC stuff we care about is irrelevant to people who just want their applications to work.

So, bottom line, when we cater to our own opinions about what's important and then bounce that off other people just like us for validation, we're ignoring the real users - and thus not doing our jobs.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.