In my time as a programmer, I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the phone talking to users who are attempting to report some kind of problem. It can sometimes be very frustrating. People say that programmers can be poor communicators, and that is often true; but the same accusation can equally be made of many users.
The worst case scenario is when you get the “perfect storm”, a user who is impatient, vague, reluctant to answer direct questions with an equally direct answer, and who only knows one technical term and is determined to use it, regardless of whether or not he or she is using it with anything like its correct meaning.
What’s it like? Well imagine a teenaged son had been given permission to borrow his dad’s car to go to work, and then phoned his dad…
Son: Dad! The Ford’s crashed.
Son: [Impatient] The Ford’s crashed. I need you to sort everything out.
Dad: [confused] Ford… Ford? Are you talking about the car?
Son: Yeah, yeah. The car.
Dad: You’ve crashed the car?
Son: It’s crashed.
Dad: [Confused] Who crashed it?
Dad: Well you were there, right?
Dad: When it crashed?
Son: [Impatient] Yes.
Dad: And was anyone else there?
Son: Why does that matter?
Dad: Okay. Are you hurt?
Son: No. But I need to get to work!
Dad: But you’re okay?
Son: [Angry] No. I’m not okay. I need to get to work and the car’s crashed.
Dad: So what happened?
Son: [Confused] What do you mean?
Dad: What happened? How did the crash happen?
Son: I don’t know. That’s why I’m phoning you!
Dad: You don’t know how the crash happened?
Son: No. I already told you that.
Dad: Well where did it happen?
Son: Where did what happen?
Dad: The crash!
Son: I don’t know. It was like that when I found it.
Dad: You found it crashed?
Son: Where, what?
Dad: Where did you find it crashed?
Son: In the driveway. Where else was I going to find it?
Dad: You found it crashed in the driveway?
Dad: And did you hear anything?
Son: Hear what? When?
Dad: [Exasperated] Did you hear the sound of a car crashing, after I left to work, but before you went out and found it crashed!
Dad: You didn’t notice it? Someone crashed the car in the driveway when you were in the house and you didn’t notice it?
Son: No. Look dad, I really need to get to work.
Dad: Well is the car not working?
Son: No. That’s why I’m calling you.
Dad: Have you called the police?
Son: Why would I have called the police?
Dad: Because someone’s crashed our car in our driveway?
Son: Look I don’t know who’s done what. I just know that the car’s crashed and I need to get to work.
Dad: Okay. How badly damaged is it?
Son: I don’t know.
Dad: Well what damage can you see?
Son: I can’t see any damage.
Dad: Well is it parked funnily?
Dad: [Confused] Well how do you know it’s been crashed?
Son: Because it’s crashed, and now it doesn’t work.
Dad: And you’ve tried starting it have you?
Son: Do you mean have I tried starting it, again?
Dad: What do you mean, again?
Dad: Okay. You went out, and found out that it had crashed. After that, did you try to start it?
Dad: Why not?
Son: Because it had crashed.
Dad: Look, let’s just start from the top. Tell me exactly what you did this morning when you left the house.
Son: I got into the car and found that it had crashed.
Dad: You had to get into the car first, before you knew that it had crashed?
Son: Yes. Obviously.
Dad: Well how did you know that it had crashed?
Son: Because it crashed.
Dad: Okay. [Takes deep breath]. What did you do when you got into the car?
Son: Tried to start it up.
Son: It crashed.
Dad: It crashed when you tried to start it up?
Dad: So what happened?
Son: What happened, when?
Dad: What happened after you started up? Did it go forwards, backwards, fast, slow? What happened?
Son: Nothing happened.
Dad: But you just said it crashed?
Son: Yeah, it did.
Dad: Tell me exactly what happened when you tried to start it up.
Son: Nothing happened.
Dad: Nothing happened? No noise. No sound. Nothing?
Son: Yeah. Nothing happened. Just a click when I turned the metal thing I’ve got on the ring next to the Yale I use to get in the front door of the house.
Dad: The key?
Son: Whatever. I’m not technical. Anyway, it didn’t make that whirry noise it usually makes.
Dad: So what you’re saying is… the car won’t start?
Son: Yes! And I’m late for work! And you spending five minutes asking me stupid questions isn’t helping! Now what are you going to do about it?
And that’s over the phone. When you’re conducting the conversation via an exchange of emails it can sometimes take all day just to establish what happened, sometimes going through several versions of my personal favourite: sending them an email whose body consisting entirely of a single, yes or no, questions, to which they send a reply that manages to say neither yes, nor no.