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Why high tech is at fault

Apr 17, 20064 mins
Network Security

Ever get complaints about high tech from your workmates, friends and family? Happens all the time, doesn’t it? Your boss gets a new cell phone, and it doesn’t work the same way as her last one, and you wind up being the bad guy, because you can’t explain it to her, and she’s not really interested in the first place.

Or a new version of one of your company’s productivity applications is installed, and despite having sent around memos warning everyone and providing user guides and offering training, the first day it is available any and every problem seen by the users is a disaster on par with humanity being wiped out by a meteor, and it is all your fault.

Despite megayears of complaints by consumers of all levels of ability, in many major high-tech companies engineers still get to build products without parental oversight. Motorola is an example. Have you ever looked at the Razr? Nice design on the outside but the user interface is horrible and dust accumulates between the LCD screen and its cover. Pathetic!

The result of engineers having their evil way with products is almost always that hardware or software will work provided you use it exactly as they say, or you are an engineer. Otherwise, you’ll need an aspirin and lots of luck or a consultant. Or all three.

Next, manuals. Manuals are not good for anything other than padding the equipment in transit (again, the Razr manual is a good example). It seems that the idea of writing manuals in, say, Urdu, having them translated into Latvian by Japanese schoolchildren and then back into English by machine translation makes more sense than writing them in English. Why is it that product managers seem to never pay any attention to manuals? It is like they can’t see them, and anytime you bring up the topic they act like you are speaking in tongues.

Those are bad enough, but worse are yet to come. How about the way high-tech companies keep changing user interfaces? I suspect that user interface design is a contact sport as far as marketing is concerned. For example, ever notice how many programs have the same features from one release to the next but often in totally different places? And the shortcut keys change so that whatever was “copy” becomes “delete all,” and whatever was “undo” becomes “quit without warning and shut down the PC after erasing the hard drive.”

What about hardware design? Why is it always working against you rather than for you? For example, why are plugs and sockets on equipment always squashed together so that you need fingers the size of a 5-year-old to get at them, and why are they labeled so that their functions can be discerned only in full sunlight if you have perfect vision and a magnifying glass?

And the biggie: support. The average user support group is a disaster. It is like trying to get blood from a stone. They are frequently more bureaucratic than the IRS and have the customer-care skills of Attila the Hun. They live in a netherworld of too little time and too many problems from too many people while not being paid enough. And their management never actually talks to them. Is it any wonder they take it out on you?

So what I’m trying to tell you is that it isn’t your fault. You are in the clear. You do your bit to bring light and reason into the world, and you are simply being thwarted by forces far greater than yourself. So take heart . . . even though it is going to get worse before it gets better, at least you are assured of employment, because, while everyone will blame you as always, you will still be the only guy who can make this stuff work for them.

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Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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