As IT support professionals, you probably establish and enforce lots of policies. You can enforce frequent password changes at logon. You can encourage common sense in your users by telling them not to share their passwords and not to open suspicious e-mail attachments.

But how do you teach your end users to deal with error messages? The answer starts with five little words: “If you’re not sure, ask.”

The tale of the orange boxes
As IT people, we tend to assume that everyone has enough common sense not to click OK every time a dialog box pops up. Unfortunately, if we don’t tell our users what to do, we have no right to complain when they take their best shots.

In last week’s View from Ground Zero column, I told you about a consulting client who called me in to restore a database that had been accidentally “trashed.” I have since spoken with someone else who was in the office when the application started having problems, and she mentioned “that orange box.”

I said, “You mean you saw an orange box on the screen when the manager was working on the customer database?”

“Oh yes, lots of times,” she said.

“And what did the manager do?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

“She turned the computer off and then back on.”

The “orange box” is that database application’s equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death. There was a time when I was on-call for telephone support with this client’s office managers for problems just like this one.

Everybody knew about the “orange boxes” in those days. I made a point to mention it every time I wrote or spoke to one of the managers. “Remember, if you see any orange boxes, you call me right away!” (Most of them were terrified of the computer when they hired on, so they’d call me when the cursor blinked funny.)

The point is that the poor soul who trashed the database did so unknowingly. She was just technically savvy enough to have heard that to fix most problems you can “turn if off and back on.”

That myth led to her undoing in this gig. Although there’s no full-time IT person in this organization, this office manager could have called the designated “computer person” for help. “Hey, what’s with this orange box?” The first time she asked, she would have gotten an earful about the orange boxes.

All the while she was rebooting her PC, her damaged database was causing incomplete and inaccurate reports. The process of hand-compiling the weekly reports had to be contributing to her stress.

The moral of this story is: “If you’ve got any orange boxes in your system, publicize them.

Publicize your episodic error messages
There was another error message I had to remind those office managers to remember: “Would you like to rebuild the indexes now?” It was intermittent. It was unexplained. It didn’t hurt anything if you clicked No to dismiss it.

But the last time someone clicked Yes, it crashed the system and the CEO laid down the law: “Let it never happen again.” For the record, I documented the instructions so they could perform disaster recovery themselves. But they’ve called me two or three times since then anyway.

So how do you avoid accidental losses? First, put the golden rule of disaster prevention into the employees’ manual and in your e-mail signatures: If you’re not sure, ask.

Remind your users that “the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.” IT support is a dialogue. You can’t help your users unless you can coax or drag out of them information about the kind of help they need.

Second, if your system is known to display a dangerous dialog occasionally, be proactive about preventing accidents. Get the word out to your users. Your users can’t help you unless you give them the information they need.

Create a document entitled “Always Click No or Cancel to These Prompts” and get it into the hands of all your users. You’re not limited to listing the known bugs in your system. Go ahead and list some other commonsense things you should always cancel (if you’re not sure about it):

  • Anything with “discarded,” “overwritten,” “delete,” or “replace” in it
  • Anything with “Format C:” in it
  • Anything containing the phrase “will be lost”

Put in your two cents
If you’ve got anything to add to this list of “commonsense things all users should know,” we want to hear from you. Send us your tips for the ultimate end user training guide. (And please, no goofy joke or acronym lists.)
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battlefield. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff’s View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you’ll get a bonus of Jeff’s picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers. If you already subscribe, e-mail this column to a friend.