10 technology traps your users should watch out for

We take certain best practices for granted, but users who don't know any better often create problems for themselves. This list will help steer them away from common pitfalls.

Technology is a two-edged sword. It can certainly make life easier. But it can also create headaches and frustration for the unwary user. Here's a list of some basic tech do's and don'ts you can share with them.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Saving a file directly to an external drive

Those external USB drives or flash memory sticks provide convenient extra storage. However, you should avoid saving an application file, such as a Word document or PowerPoint presentation, directly to such a drive. Save the file to your internal drive and then copy it to the external one. If you save the file directly to the external drive, it may become corrupted during the save, especially if you accidentally break the USB connection. In that case, you'll get the dreaded "[name of application] cannot open the file" message when you next try to use that file.

2: Working directly on an attached e-mail file

Your boss or co-worker has sent you an e-mail with an attached document you're supposed to revise. So you click on the attachment, spend hours on revisions, then save the file and forward the message, with the attachment, back to the original sender. Don't be surprised if you get a call asking why that file is still in its original form.

Yes, you can make those revisions to the attachment. You can save them and then close the file. You can even click on the original message attachment again, and see that your changes are there. However, if you send that message to someone else, chances are that your changes will be ignored, and all the recipient will see is the file as you first received it. Therefore, to be safe, first save that attachment to a non-temporary folder on your hard disk before working on it. Then, upload this revised file when are ready to return it to the sender.

3: Sending recipients a file in an incompatible format

Have you just installed Word 2007? Be careful if you're sending your .docx files to others. If those users haven't upgraded and they haven't installed have the Office Compatibility Pack, they may not be able to work with your files. Check to make sure that recipients have at least the same version of software as yours, if not later. Otherwise, you may want to save your file in an earlier format, if possible. Better yet, if your recipients are only viewing and not changing the file, consider sending your file as a PDF. You can download and install Microsoft's Save as PDF or XPS add-on for Office 2007 or look for a standalone product such as this free PDF creator.

4: Sending a file created in an obscure application

The same principle applies if you're using some uncommon application that only you have. Sending someone a data file from your application in native format will probably do them no good. If it's not practical for them to install that application, consider sending the file as a PDF. Alternatively, if that application has one, send recipients a viewer for the application. Such a version generally is free and will allow recipients to view a file but probably not to change it.

5: Relying unnecessarily on batteries

With respect to using power outlets, remember the same principle applies as with fueling your car or using the restroom: A wise person does so when he or she can, a foolish person does so when he or she must. Are you waiting for your flight at the airport gate area? Are you next to an available live outlet? Even though your laptop battery might be at 100%, take a second and plug your laptop into that outlet and run with electricity. You might later find that your airplane has no outlets or that you lack an adapter that lets you use it. If you run on batteries in the waiting area, you will have deprived yourself of battery power you later might need.

6: Losing that smartphone

Do you have an iPhone or similar product? If so, and you're like most owners, your whole life is now stored on it. If you lose that phone, you may also lose sensitive information, such as credit card and bank account numbers. Consider password-protecting that phone. In addition, if you do have an iPhone, you may want to get a program such as MobileMe. (Currently, you'll get a $30 discount if you purchase it when you purchase your iPhone.) This program will let you remotely erase the contents of your phone. In addition, if your phone is merely misplaced (say, in your home), MobileMe allows you to unsilence it and activate its ringer.

7: Ambiguity regarding email addresses

Have you ever been told, "I sent you an email already," but you see no such message? It could have happened because you (like many people) have multiple email addresses: your address for work and several for personal use. Be sure you ascertain which account the other person has sent the email to. And if you tell someone you sent that person an email, be specific as to which address you used.

8: Dead batteries

The presentation is about to start. You pull out your laser pointer, press the button — and nothing happens. If you're traveling with battery-operated equipment, be aware that it might accidentally be turned on, thus draining the batteries. Consider this trick I was taught long ago as a Boy Scout: Reverse each battery, so that the positive terminal battery is touching the negative connection of the device and vice versa. Of course, remember to re-reverse it before you need to use it.

9: Entering a bad link

Don't rely on your memory or on manual typing of a URL when sending email or composing a document. One wrong letter or a wrong domain type may cause the recipient or reader embarrassment, irritation, or wasted time. Navigate to that Web site first yourself and confirm that it's the one you want. Then, copy the Web address and paste it into your document or email. Alternately, if you do insist on typing the URL manually yourself, test it to make sure it goes where you are expecting it to go.

10: Cats

Cats are wonderfully cute but curious creatures. If you have or are about to get one, be aware that they may find your keyboard a warm and comfortable place to nap. If they're heavy enough, and stay long enough, they may end up disabling the keyboard. Shutting down and restarting the computer may solve the issue, but the best approach is to keep them away in the first place. If you have to leave your computer, shut it down or put it in standby, then shut the lid. Most of all, you do not want that cat to have an accident while lying on your keyboard.

In addition, keep cats away from your power cord, or rely only on battery power when they're around (but see the earlier point regarding electric power). Your cat will start playing with the power cord or get tangled in it. And if frightened, the cat will lunge away, possibly getting hurt and/or ripping and thus destroying your cord while creating a Fourth of July display. (And yes, this has happened to me.)


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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