tech_20supportIt’s a cliché (or at least a TVTrope) that if you want to know what’s really going on in an organization, you talk to the janitors—or other people who have the same habit of being around all the time, observing people and things, without being noticed.

In my current “day job” working for a tech support corporation, I’ve noticed a similar truism: If you want to know what’s really going on in the way people relate to technology, you talk to the tech support.

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a number of interesting patterns pop up in the calls I get: a surprising number of them are about the same sorts of issues. Many different people just seem to have trouble with the same sorts of things. As I’ve observed before, these aren’t stupid people, much as tech support humor likes to paint them that way. They’re people who have better things to do than geek out over technology, so they lack the tools necessary to figure things out.  And certain aspects of technology continue to be designed in ways that puzzle these average people.

Back when I was in the computer tech support division, I observed a remarkable number of calls coming from people who had somehow managed to turn their laptop wifi off by accident. Switches or buttons were too easy to bump without noticing it, and when this happened Windows failed to explain to its users what had happened in a way they could understand.

Now that I’m supporting Internet-connected TVs and Blu-Ray players, I’m noticing similar patterns. Perhaps my most oft-heard call is from someone having trouble hooking his TV or Blu-Ray player up to wifi to watch Netflix—not so much that they couldn’t do it, but that they just couldn’t navigate the menus on their TVs or understand what things meant.

I honestly think that the world would be a lot better off if people who designed user interfaces for devices had to spend a few months providing telephone technical support for the sorts of devices they design. This way they would learn first-hand what gives people the most problems, and be able to incorporate that into their future designs. I know that I’ve already learned a lot more about the worst design aspects of computers, TVs, and DVD players than I ever expected to know.

I would really like to get the perspective of someone who works in e-book tech support—for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or other popular e-readers. I think it would be a great way to learn what parts of e-reading really give the most people trouble. (If any such person would care to talk to me, I promise I’ll keep your identity secret to protect your job!)


  1. Spot-on, Chris. Part of the problem for those of us who call support and become the butt of support humor is that the device we are having problems with is hooked up and/or configured once in the device’s lifetime, so we don’t master the doing-it-ourselves bit, which mastery often occurs from repeat practice. In addition, many of the “instruction” manuals are either very sparse or assume some preexisting familiarity with the device or are poorly written (often very bad translations from some other language).

  2. Just based on comments and threads I see on sites like MobileRead, I’d guess most of the tech-related issues regarding ebooks tends to be related to jailbreaking the ebook, or the reading device. So many people are trying to do things with ebook files that they aren’t always designed for, like format-shifting or text reformatting… and, of course, DRM-removal.

    And people want their chosen devices to be able to access stores other than the original device sellers’ store (Kindle users wanting to read Barnes and Noble books, Nook owners wanting to read Kindle books, etc).

    After that, it’s figuring out WiFi issues and connectivity… and yes, wireless systems could be more easily configured for users. I don’t consider myself dumb, I’m a medium-techie, yet I wrestle with my home WiFi all the time! (And sometimes, I lose.)

  3. This reminds me that I talked a friend into getting a kindle, and when I was walking her through how to use I told her to hit menu and choose experimental. Her response? “I wondered what that was!” Makes me wonder how many people never try it because of that label alone.

  4. @ Steven Lyle Jordan: I don’t think it’s so much that people are trying to get away with something as it is that most non-technical people just don’t understand issues of format and conflicting DRM. I sell ereaders (Kobo and Sony), and I find this is the area of biggest confusion when I”m talking to people. If they can walk into a B&N or a Borders and buy a paper book, and read it anywhere, why can’t they do the same thing with ebooks?

  5. I’m a user who doesn’t know how to program my VCR, err– DVD player. Also, I don’t use my cellphone enough to know most of it’s features. I could do better, and I will eventually. I did raise three extremely tech savvy sons though! Hey, maybe that’s why I don’t HAVE to know about these things. I’ve got excellent tech support. I’m glad they don’t just tell me to sink or swim!

  6. @becca: I didn’t mean to suggest that people were trying to “get away with” something… just that they get a reader, expecting they can access pretty much all books… then they discover there are other sources of books, or different formats, and they decide they want to check those out, only to discover their device won’t let them as-is. I agree, this is a problem that most people aren’t aware of when they first jump in to ebooks, and it is frustrating to a lot of them when they do figure it out. Heck, it’s frustrating to those of us who are aware of the issues!

    Fortunately for a lot of people, they seem to be satisfied by the options available from the major retailers, so they don’t always feel pressured to check out “the other guys.” But those who want more are forced to shoot the rapids of formats, devices and DRM, and seek help from tech support to get them past the biggest rocks.

    Ebooks themselves still have to distinguish themselves–they are not printed books, there are differences in how you use them, it’s time to come to grips with that–so people know what to expect and not expect from them. When a lot of that is finally straightened out, tech support will have a bit less to do.

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