This week, the support.mozilla.com team (known as SUMO for short) ran a contest. They set up four computers in the hallway, each open to a feed of support questions, assigned everyone to one of four teams by last name, and offered prizes to whichever team could answer the most support questions by Wednesday afternoon. I stopped by several times and did a few rounds of tech support for the “S-Z” team.

It reminded me of my old days of working at Humanized, where I would often spend the first few hours of each day catching up on emails from users: tech-support questions, bug reports, and complaints — before digging into code. It’s repetitive work, but it gave me the great benefit of seeing our software as our users saw it. A stint doing tech-support for one’s own product is something I strongly recommend for anyone in software development. It teaches you what you need to improve vs. what you merely would like to improve.

Like most of us, I answer a lot of Firefox questions for friends and family. But this was my first time doing anonymous Firefox support through official channels. So what did I find out?

Some questions were painful to read:

I’m new to the Internet. How do I add an attachment to an email in Firefox?

, asked one person. Before you slap your forehead, consider that it’s a perfectly reasonable question from his point of view. The subtle difference between using a dedicated e-mail application, and using a web browser to look at a web-based interface for one of many e-mail services, is not something you know about when you’re new to the Internet. Nor should we expect him to know that his question would have been better addressed to his email service providers than to us.

As I always say: It’s not the user’s fault!

Sometimes it took a lot of detective work to even puzzle out what someone was trying to ask. One poor user complained that links on some news sites cause her back button to turn grey; in Internet Explorer, she said, she can click the red X to get back to the original page, but in Firefox clicking the red X quits everything and she has to start it up again.

Well, that sure sounds frustrating. Can you figure out what she’s talking about? That’s right: those news links are set to open in a new window. Firefox by default opens them in a new tab instead. The back button is grey because the new window/tab has no history yet. The user apparently doesn’t have a clear understanding of either windows or tabs, and only knows that the “red X” (the window close button on WinXP) fixes one but not the other.

It’s hard to answer tech support questions for people who are lacking even the basic mental model of what’s going on, who are missing the framework or the set of categories that would allow them to understand an explanation of a software interface.

But: Take a deep breath, and remember again: It’s not the user’s fault.

This is an education problem. In a way, all user-interface design problems are education problems. The problem is how to teach people to use your software.

If a student doesn’t understand what the teacher is saying, what should the teacher do? There are really only two choices. You can simplify the material down until it reaches the student’s current level of understanding. Or you can raise the student’s level of understanding until they become capable of grasping the material.

In HCI, we spend a lot of time talking about the former — simplifying the interface down to the user’s current level of understanding — but we only rarely talk about the latter. I think this is mostly because computer interfaces have traditionally had a huge amount of unnecessary complexity to them. There’s no reason a user should have to know the difference between POP and IMAP email protocols, so we quite rightly try to hide that difference away to simplify the interface.

But when the unnecessary complexity has been eliminated, all that is left is necessary complexity, the inherent difficulty of deciding what you want the computer to do for you. Should we eliminate tabs and windows because some users don’t understand them? I can hardly imagine how such a thing would be done, or who it would benefit. What’s left is figuring out how to educate our users about tabs and windows, or about the different options of email services and clients that are available to them. Just as we expect school to equip our children to make smart decisions when they face the big scary world, we have to equip new Firefox users with the ability to make smart decisions when they face the big scary Internet – one full of scammers, impostors, and malware. I think the future of HCI needs to emphasize teaching just as much as it emphasizes simplification.

Meanwhile, support.mozilla.com has a constant need for new teachers. Many of the questions are basic enough that you don’t need a deep technical background to answer them. If you read this blog, you probably know enough about Firefox to answer at least twenty percent of the support questions we get. If you have the motivation to contribute to Mozilla but you’re not a coder, this is a great way to get involved. So give it a try sometime! All it takes is a few minutes a day whenever you have a coffee break, you’ll feel like a Good Samaritan for helping a stranger figure out the Internet, and I guarantee you it’s a more satisfying way to fritter away online time than checking your Twitter feed for the tenth time in one day.

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