Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Why there will always be a market for those who can explain things clearly

My parents' TV broke last week. Against my advice, they went to an electrical retailer yesterday and "bought a new one". I have no idea what process they went through to choose a TV with the right combination of features, size, price and reliability for their needs; I suspect they went through no such process at all. That's not to criticise: they must simply value spontaneity more highly than I do.

The first I knew of their purchase was when I was walking through Duisburg last night looking for a restaurant. My phone rang and it turned out they had spent ninety minutes trying to get their new TV to work.

The instructions made no sense at all and they just couldn't get it "tuned in".

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that they have cable and their cable box connected to their old TV via Scart. Their TV aerial was unused and, to my knowledge, remains unused. Therefore, the concept of "tuning in" their TV was redundant.

As they discovered after I asked them to change channel on the cable box, their TV had been working all along....

However, it's too easy to jump to the conclusion that they are tech-illiterate hillbillies. They did what they thought was the right thing: they followed the instructions in the book. They had no knowledge of "SCART" and "AV1" and why this means they don't need to "tune in" their TV. They thought that following the quick-start guide in the book would be their best solution.

How wrong they were.

So, if it's possible to spend ninety minutes trying (and failing) to configure a new TV - one of the most pervasive consumer electronic devices on the planet - how much opportunity must there be out there for those who can help the average person configure any of the other items currently on sale on the high street?

I am so very clearly in the wrong job.


Bruce Silver said...

I think you take the wrong lesson from this. It's not about explaining complex things clearly, but about the assumptions we make about users. Many years ago I taught Physics Project Lab at MIT, a lab course for juniors and seniors in the department. When a student, after endless tinkering and reconfiguring, finally asked for help getting some device to behave as advertised, my first question was always, "Are you sure such-and-such is plugged in?" That was the problem 90% of the time. But can you imagine HP or some other maker of sophisticated test equipment emphasizing "Plug this in before turning it on"?

I'm not immune myself. When I rented a car in Italy this year, Avis assumed that because I'm American I must have specified a manual transmission by mistake. After I was able to convince the agent to give me the right car, I couldn't for the life of me get it into reverse. Turns out these French and Italian cars have some kind of ring on the shifter that you have to pull up to go into reverse. Oh, they don't have that in America? I'll bet it's not in the user manual, either.

Richard Brown said...

Hi Bruce,

Nice example :-)

I think the assumptions we make about users and our choices around how to explain things are very closely related.

As you suggest, the TV guide incorrectly assumed my parents were using one type of lead to link their cable box to their TV and incorrectly assumed that they would realise this meant they needed to follow a different collection of steps.

However, surely making these kind of incorrect assumptions is the kind of thing someone does when they're poor at explaining things... after all, making somebody else understand something relies, to a large extent, on seeing the problem from their perspective.

Regardless, I share your pain with manual gearboxes. Every car I've ever driven has had a different technique for getting it into reverse :-(