After Hours

10 things that drive your users crazy

When users get angry or frustrated, your job becomes a whole lot harder. But if you know what's likely to set them off, you can keep things on a more even keel. Here are a few common emotional triggers to watch out for.

When users get angry or frustrated, your job becomes a whole lot harder. But if you know what's likely to set them off, you can keep things on a more even keel. Here are a few common emotional triggers to watch out for.


Like most of us, users have certain buttons that it's best not to push. Unfortunately, it's not always clear exactly what those buttons are. For the users' sake -- and certainly for yours -- it's a good idea to learn to recognize and avoid as many potential annoyances as possible. Here are 10 of the more common user buttons be aware of.

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

1: Being talked down to

For many users, facility with computers is hard to attain, and what competence they do achieve is constantly being eroded by rapid change. Make no mistake, they resent this, and they'll take out that resentment on you if you give them the chance. If you let them infer that you think they're idiots too lazy to learn, or let the "I'm talking to a six-year-old" tone creep into your voice, you'll be in a hole before you start.

2: Being talked up to

On the other hand, it's a delicate balance. If you overwhelm users with technical information or questions, you may be overestimating what they know or -- more likely -- how much they care. Chances are, to them, their computer problem is just an irritating detour on the path to getting the job done. All they really want to know is how long it will be before they can get going again. Anything else, no matter how important to solving the problem or preventing its recurrence, is secondary. So choose carefully what topics you get into and to what depth. Less may be better.

3: Hearing that what they want can't be done

The problem here is that computers do so many improbable things that users are predisposed to think you're just blowing them off. Rather than leave them thinking you don't know how to do it or you're just too lazy to do it, qualify your response and give them one or two plausible reasons why what they want might be prohibitively expensive or difficult. If you can't come up with reasons at the moment, acknowledge the potential value of their suggestion and tell them you need to think about it. This lets them know you're not ignoring them and gives you time to work out the reasons. Think of it as doing your homework early -- if it was asked for once, likely it will be asked for again ... possibly by your boss.

4: Dealing with people they can't understand

Users' knowledge, training, and experience are so different from ours that we're already speaking two different languages. They don't even see the same things we do when they look at the screen or at recalcitrant hardware. And if they have to deal with an impenetrable accent or a baffling dialect on top of that, difficult turns into impossible. Nothing irritates a person with a problem as much as being unable to make themselves understood -- or being unable to understand what they're hearing. This is often out of your hands, but when it's not, addressing it can make a huge difference. Once you recognize that you don't understand the user, or the user's not understanding you, do what you can to lessen the problem. If there's someone available who might be a better linguistic match for the user, get them.

5: Having their input ignored

Granted, if users understood their problem, they probably wouldn't have a problem. Still... it's likely they know the situation better than you do, and no one likes to be ignored. A little patient and nonjudgmental listening can help you tease out (a) what actually happened and (b) what they actually want from the tangle of frustration, misunderstanding, and exaggeration that often greets you.

6: Being treated arbitrarily

No one likes this, but users are particularly sensitive to it when they have a computer problem because they already feel like they're being treated arbitrarily -- by the computer. Day after day, their computers do incredibly complicated tasks routinely and flawlessly until -- for no apparent reason and with little if any warning -- they don't. Sure, we know there's almost always a reason, and often some warning, but they don't see that. So they're already irritated by an arbitrary "Act of Computer," and it won't take much to transfer that irritation to you. Give reasons for your actions or instructions and explain why the thing you're suggesting will help fix their problem.

7: Being told the problem is "incompatibility"

Blaming incompatibility for the user's problem might be the right answer, but it can still get you in trouble. It just sounds too much like "Because!" -- an answer designed to cut off further debate. It can help if you don't stop there but go on to explain, for example, that it's like the two programs speak different languages. Without translation, it's never going to work. If they ask (quite reasonably) why everyone doesn't "speak English," you can try telling them that the unconstrained nature of software produces a sort of New Guinea of programming languages, standards, and approaches. Papua New Guinea has more than 800 languages in an area the size of California. You're still giving them a "Because!" answer, but with a bit of explanation and sympathy. We don't like incompatibility any more than they do; we're just more used to it.

8: Being asked to change without adequate input, warning, or explanation

As representatives of a rapidly evolving field, IT people frequently end up as the agents of change. And change is always painful. Patterns and procedures that took time and effort for users to establish and fine-tune get scrapped and have to be painstakingly re-created. The only good reason for them to change is anticipation of future benefits. If you can, solicit their input and give them plenty of warning. Even if you can't do that, at least connect the dots for them -- show them how the change will lead to benefits for them. If you can't, reconsider the change.

9: Being scolded for how they use their computer

Many users regard how they use their computer as largely a matter of their personal choice, not company business. Hardware and software manufacturers don't help us here. Even if your users don't know the "P" in PC stands for "personal," they're constantly barraged by ways to customize, personalize, and otherwise "own" their computers and programs. It all encourages them to think, "It's my tool, and how I use it is my business." So tread warily when approaching this issue. If they really do need to be scolded, don't do it yourself. That's what their boss is for.

10: IT people messing with their stuff

Asking permission to open users e-mail or look at their folders or files is a good idea -- especially if you don't need to. Nothing shows respect for other people's privacy like making an effort you didn't have to make. Computers have become so much a part of your users' lives, at work and at home, that they can't help feeling proprietary about "their" computer and "their" stuff. It's an unavoidable problem when the same tool is being used for work, communication, and entertainment. On the plus side, this is becoming less of a problem, as now people tend to bring their own communication/entertainment devices to work. That, of course, causes problems too -- but in most situations, they're not IT's problems.


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