Each year, we solicit our members for humorous stories about how careless and clueless users can be with their computers. During our most recent call for clueless user stories we received over 500 sidesplitting tales. These stories ranged from the mildly comical to the downright hilarious, from common mistakes to unbelievable blunders, and everything in between. We also received a few flames from members who feel these stories are more harmful than humorous. Indeed, we must ask ourselves, “When our job is to have understanding and patience when helping end users with computer problems, should we be making light of their ineptitude?”

Frankly, we all appreciate a good chuckle and as professionals, I think we all realize when to draw the line on humor. But these stories not only provide us a moment of laughter, they also educate us. If we look closely at the amusing experiences of our peers, we may actually learn something that will help us deal with our next bizarre user encounter. We may even realize that the user’s lack of computer savvy stems from our own failure to teach them proper computer usage. Keep this in mind while you’re laughing at the following submissions, which we’ve chosen as the best clueless user stories of 2001.

Selecting the cream of the crop
Sifting through the mailbag, there were a number of stories that had similar themes, some of which were expressed in creative and humorous ways, leaving us convinced that some members should be telling their stories in front of crowds at the local comedy club.

Because there were so many similar stories, we weeded out the following common themes:

  • Those stories of liquids screwing up the works of monitors, keyboards and computers
  • Tales of users who get into trouble because they can’t find the “any key”
  • Variations of why things don’t work after power strips get plugged into open sockets on the same strip
  • Support staff making long trips only to find the problem lies with unplugged monitors and computers

Even these stories show an obvious need for help desks to educate end users in the very basics of computer usage. A little up-front information can save you loads of future aggravation.

What would we do without end users?
Sometimes it is easy to figure out what is happening at the other end of the phone when you get a call for help. Sometimes there is no substitute for being on the scene.

Gregory Nelson had a story that points out how important it is to visit the person in trouble whenever possible.

It seems an employee called the help desk early one morning because she couldn’t get her computer to turn on—or so she thought. When she arrived at her office, she pushed the power buttons on both her monitor and her computer.

Greeted with a blank monitor screen, she repeated the process of hitting both power buttons several times. She was pretty frustrated when she called the help desk, and over the phone, it was impossible to discover that when she had left the night before, she had logged off and turned off only her monitor.

“So the next morning when she hit both buttons, she was actually turning on her monitor, but shutting off her desktop. Hitting them again turned off her monitor but turned on her desktop,” Nelson wrote. “She might still be there hitting those buttons if one of the help desk staff had not walked over to see what was going on.”

Sometimes users try to be helpful
Making a trip to the desktop in question can be enlightening in other ways. Lisa Almodovar discovered this when she tried to troubleshoot a malfunctioning mouse over the telephone and was unable to solve the problem.

Almodovar visited the end user’s desktop and began to go through her mental list of mouse troubleshooting procedures, including popping the mouse ball out to check for debris that tends to make mice act erratically.

“To my surprise, the ball was very slimy to the touch,” she wrote. So she asked the user what she had put on the mouse to make it feel that way.

“Oh, I put some hand cream on it so it would glide better!” the user happily told Almodovar.

End users don’t always see the ramifications of what they do to their computers. It’s up to us to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. But sometimes even that doesn’t prevent problems.

Fuzzy knowledge requires clear communication
As computer cases get smaller and less imposing, sometimes the user has a hard time differentiating the computer from the peripheral. This lack of basic hardware knowledge appeared in several members’ stories.

The lesson came home to haunt Ed Ward when he got a call from a user who was seriously confused about hardware. The user was having problems with an internal modem on his computer. In previous calls to the help desk center, the user had been talked through replacing drivers and opening the case to reseat the modem card.

Apparently his modem card was fried, so Ward’s company sent him another modem and asked the user to call the company back when the modem arrived. Just toss out the old modem, the user was told.

When the modem arrived at the user’s home, he called to complain that all he got was a circuit board, and not the whole modem. Apparently, the man confused the computer with the modem, and had thrown out the entire computer box a few days before the new modem arrived. All he had left was the mouse, keyboard monitor, speakers—and now a new modem.

This user taught Ward that not everyone knows as much about hardware as he and other IT professionals. Now, he said, he clearly describes to the user what the affected part looks like and what it does.

Sometimes a lack of knowledge is a good thing
Not only do some end users have gaps in their knowledge about hardware, they often don’t understand what happens behind the scenes of some software programs they use every day.

This was the case for an employee who discovered that e-mail is not an anonymous form of communication. Mike Horner was called in to investigate some malicious e-mails that were being sent to his company’s staff.

“Within 10 minutes of looking at the e-mails, we had the person sending the e-mails sitting in the office,” Horner wrote. Apparently the perpetrator of the malicious e-mails didn’t realize his return address was going out with the e-mails, even though he was signing himself as “Geekman.” Oops!

It’s not always about the users
Clueless user tricks are not limited to those with an excuse for it. That sentiment is part of John Bell’s criticism of TechRepublic’s annual collection of stories that poke fun at users.

It’s the IT staff’s job to understand and address the needs of their users, not to laugh at their errors even if they do funny things, he said.

“I do not think it healthy for an on-line technical portal like yourself to be soliciting one-sided put-downs about the very people who make it possible for us to earn a living doing what we love to do,” Bell wrote. “Let’s leave the dumb user roasting to others and maintain a professional and helpful atmosphere within TechRepublic.”

Well John, we’ve actually solicited for a clueless techie award, which we hoped would shed a little light on some of the gaps in knowledge shared across the profession. We just didn’t get much of a reaction: The responses amounted to less than 1 percent of those we received for the clueless user award.

Here’s one about the techies themselves that we received from among the clueless user entries.

“Oh my gosh—[the clueless user] was ME! The help desk!” wrote Carolyn Frey.

Frey recently moved from New York to southern Virginia, and the language problem caused a blip in communications for her.

The organization had just upgraded a switch and sent a memo to employees to change their network properties to a new TCP/IP address. While not the easiest thing for users to do, Frey said she was surprised that so many did it correctly.

“The one major trip-up was the remote users—these directions were not as clear and major confusion resulted,” she wrote. One remote user called her with a question.

“I am using a dial-up laptop and I don’t know if I am supposed to make these changes or not,” he told her. “I don’t know if I am a NYNEX user.”

Frey was on the phone for quite some time with this user before she realized that he wasn’t calling from the North with a question about how his ISP might affect the change in his network settings.

“About 15 minutes into the conversation, I picked up the original memo to see if it referred to a NYNEX provider. Much to my surprise, what the man was referring to was ‘If you are a NT user, do the following…If you are a 9x user, … Hence, Windows 95 or 98 rather than my old northern telephone company!” she wrote. “I felt so stupid!”

Frey’s only consolation was that the man obviously didn’t know what operating system he was using.

We’re not superheroes, but…
I hope you saw in each story a way that the IT department could have prevented the often embarrassing and sometimes expensive consequences of the users’ ignorance. No IT department can take responsibility for every user’s actions, and each help desk’s end-user relationship is different, but we can all benefit by educating the user a little each time we help them with a problem.

Have you learned something from a clueless user?

Some users are clueless because we make them so with unclear instructions or obscure references. The result of this lack of communication can be dramatic. If you’ve had an experience that illustrates this, share it below.