No More Free Tech Support

Developers sometimes dread meeting new people. We suspect that when people find out what we do, they're probably going to ask us to fix a problem they're having with their computer.

The same dread occurs at major holidays when we get together with extended family. While everyone else is enjoying their time together, we're off by ourselves fixing their computers, or getting rid of a virus, or uninstalling the dozens of toolbars that suddenly appeared in their browsers, or figuring out why iTunes won't sync anymore.

It's not that we don't want to help. It's just that we spend all day (and sometimes all night) in front of our computers, so it'd be nice to forget all about tech at social events.

But this situation is unlikely to change soon. Despite our attempts to make software easier to use, it's still too unfriendly, too breakable, and just too damn geeky. People rely on their computers so heavily that we're going to be asked for free tech support for many years.

So here's what I propose: offer to trade your time doing tech support for their time talking about how they use their computers.

Yeah, I know that sounds silly, but hear me out.

A big reason software is still so unfriendly is that most developers spend very little time understanding how non-geeks experience the tech we build. We surround ourselves with fellow techies and start thinking everyone uses software the same way we do, so we keep building stuff for ourselves.

The only way we're going to stop spending so much time giving free tech support is by making stuff that's easier to use and less breakable. It's when we step into the world of non-geeks, where people type URLs into Google's search box instead of the address bar, that we start to understand what we're doing wrong.

So the trade seems like a fair one to me.

5 thoughts on “No More Free Tech Support

  1. We’ve gotten into the habit of having developers spending one day a week on the help desk. Not only humbling (our shortcommings and limited horizons being exposed) and often maddening (customer’s can’t really be that stupid), but the lessons learned, while often bruising to our egos, has, over time and in small ways improved the quality of the products and,perhaps more importantly, provided insights into worldviews and expectations of others.

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  2. One of the things I’ve found talking to people is that they often don’t even know the basic vocabulary needed to communicate a problem. Seems to me that if we’re going to trade fixing their computers for talking, they should buy beer, and lots of it for the talking part. :) At least that way it dulls the pain of trying to figure the infinite ways that “my computer” can be used. :)

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  3. “One of the things I’ve found talking to people is that they often don’t even know the basic vocabulary needed to communicate a problem”.
    Honestly, I would say that that is even more of an indication that an application or device needs to be changed or redesigned. In the ideal world, a program should be able to teach the user its vocabulary so when they call and say “the whizzit on the framistan menu blinks” you are both talking about the same whizzit and framistan.
    I know this isn’t an ideal world and you can’t do that perfectly, but by talking to the user in that kind of situation, maybe you can come to an understanding WHY they are describing it the way they are – maybe it’s something you can change, but maybe not. In either case, you have learned something valuable from the user.

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