While couch potatoes can find a new program to watch with a simple click on the remote, frustrated computer users are often stuck when it comes to problems with a piece of software, hardware, or their entire computing platform.
My colleague David Coursey called this condition Software Rage Syndrome in a recent column. He described a long list of causes, such as confusing interfaces, missing documentation, and terrible technical support. "Software rage causes sufferers to lose faith in their applications, their computers, Microsoft, the software industry, the people who represent them on the other end of the phone, technology as a whole, and in the most extreme cases, the entire human race."
MANY OF YOU offered specific examples of problematic software and hardware, as well as lackluster tech support. Especially noteworthy by its sheer length was Kevin Arthur's impressive Diary of a Mad IT Manager. He dedicates more than 4,600 words to the topic, and in the process slams many Microsoft products.
"Have I lost faith in [Microsoft]? Yes, completely," Arthur wrote. "I no longer care or believe any claim or announcement they make. I am not interested in their latest and greatest version of anything."
ONE OF YOUR colloquies, however, veered away from the particulars and may have uncovered a root cause of software rage: Computer owners and software developers seem to have fundamentally different visions of who should use programs, and in particular, who's responsible when things go wrong.
"Microsoft and other developers can choose to educate the end users (good parenting) or create an eternal attachment to the apron strings. But it's too easy for [end users] to shirk [their] responsibility, never learn for themselves, and allow geeks to take over the planet!" developer Candyce Hawk wrote in a long post about technical support. "The bottom line is that software rage is not going to go away any time soon, because companies peddling software lack integrity for the most part, and end users want to be coddled and bottle-fed until they're 50 years old! I don't see this coddling mindset at all with people who are under the age of 20; they see the power in KNOWING how to do something already. So they are a piece of cake. Tell them one time and they'll do it themselves after that."
"I buy applications to do work. Now you tell me I'm supposed to get enough training to build my own system, write my own software, and diagnose my own problems?" Margaret Ripberger responded, mentioning a recent conflict between her computer and printer. "Since I'm over 20, it's obviously all my fault. If only I'd had the foresight to drop dead at 19 years of age, I wouldn't have all these rages, and the perfect young people of this world wouldn't have to hear me whine about false advertising and poor support."
"The problem isn't bad tech support. The problem is that PCs need tech support in the first place. Can you think of another consumer product that requires tech support at anywhere near the level of the PC?" Tom Orr observed. "The PC is not now, nor has it ever been, a consumer product. The problems arise when the industry markets them as a consumer product. Consumers expect products to just work. So don't blame tech support when the industry sells PCs designed for scientists and engineers as consumer products."
To software engineer Dave Haynie, the answer is simple: Customers must make support a bigger part of their purchase decisions. "Do your homework. Check out the support sites, official and unofficial, and see the kinds of problems people are having, whether they're solved by company or community. Check the Web site for updates and see if they continually update the software or not."
THESE MESSAGES betray an almost cultural difference between consumers and developers, as well as some deep-seated contradictions in attitudes. Consumers want a product that's easy and simple, and yet capable of doing very complex tasks. Developers have a great technical understanding, and can find it difficult to empathize with the level of their customers.
Even the most consumer-driven business can have blind spots about their products. I recently found a monitor that ships without any printed documentation; it's all on a disc and online. Surely, everyone can see the problem here, except the manufacturer.
Good luck to us all. We need it.
David Morgenstern, past editor of eMediaweekly and MacWEEK, is a freelance editor and branding consultant based in San Francisco.