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User perception, reality, and why one defines the other

Today I walked into a client office and - within the first hour or so - was presented with the following issues:

  1. A user had downloaded a Microsoft Word "Form" from the Domino-based corporate intranet. When they printed said Form, the fields - despite being cleared by the user - were printing with <Enter Details Here> in them.

    The Helpdesk analyst contacted me for assistance as I "am the Domino guy...".

  2. A user had contacted the Helpdesk - which in turn contacted me - because they were unable to access their corporate Lotus Notes email. They had not been able to successfully replicate with the corporate Domino server, nor could they send emails to customer contacts. They were also unable to access their Domino-based Webmail.

    The Helpdesk analyst contacted me for assistance as I "am the Lotus Notes guy...".

  3. A new employee was unable to access a project management database that their manager was telling them to check out. They are getting "You are not authorized to access this database." errors when clicking on the link that their manager sent them via Lotus Notes email.

    The Helpdesk analyst contacted me for assistance as I "am the Lotus Notes guy...".

Now, I'm certain that you see each of these and countless other like-situations day-in and day-out: the user is having issues - and we'll assume is frustrated - with technology because it's not doing what it's designed to do. Whatever the case, at the end of the day technology is (or should be) designed to make the user's job easier. Once their job is easier, their life becomes easier - and unless they need medication, they should be a happier person for it!

Everybody wins!

The problem arises from technology that doesn't work. And doesn't work is not reserved for "this produces an error message in the UI"... doesn't work means that it doesn't do it's job: making the user's job easier.

Now, in the three issues that I mentioned today, keep in mind that the user's perception - in each case - is that there is an issue with either Lotus Notes or Domino.

  1. The Microsoft Word Form that was downloaded from the Domino-based intranet is not working.
  2. Lotus Notes email is not working.
  3. Lotus Notes won't let me in!

Each of these examples - of course - can be easily explained:

  1. The Microsoft Word Form has default values in the fields, which if not filled in display the default enter something here text when printed.
  2. This user was also unable to access Google... nor did they have an IP Address...
  3. After a simple update to a user-maintained (that manager in fact) Access Control Group, she was in!

... but those explanations don't address the real problem here: the technology failed them. They have a right to be upset that the technology didn't do it's job - regardless of how easy it was to fix - because a user expects that things should just simply work.

Someone once said to me "geeks are the worst testers, because they ignore errors and stuff not working". That's not to say we turn a blind eye to something that's broken, but we're more forgiving when things don't work how you'd expect them to work. More accurately, how a user would expect them to work.

So whether it's a glaring error, a confusing UI, incomplete Help documentation, or something that's just plain not working... this is when the technology - as per the user's perception - fails.

There are several problems with this - which the issues from this morning illustrate - in that sometimes the technology itself is not to blame. Imagine if someone killed your corporate T1/T3/etc.. I'm willing to bet you'd hear murmurs of "Lotus Notes is down...". Running Exchange? Replace Lotus Notes with Outlook... and it's the same story. These front-line technologies take the majority of the blame when things go wrong because they handle the majority of the job functions of the user and are thus staring back at the users when the world goes tilt.

So, today, 3 users thought that Lotus Notes and Domino failed them in some way.

In each of these instances, Lotus Notes nor Domino was to blame.

Does that matter?

I once had a user scream at me because they were unable to use the Microsoft Office File\Send To\Mail Recipient... feature. This user was instead burning Word documents and Excel spreadsheets to DVD and sending them into the client's corporate office. She was expensing DVD-Rs and postage.

While I worked on the issue - which had to do with the MAPI Mail Manager with Windows or something like that - I showed her how she could use the File\Attach... in Lotus Notes to add the attachment into a New Memo.

While she's no longer expensing postage nor burning a DVD for a 2MB Word document... I wonder what she thinks of Lotus Notes.

Now, a lot of these technology failures can be addressed by training... but a lot of it can be addressed by us!

How many times have you deployed an application where the Save & Close button produces a UI Prompt in the ~QueryClose Event asking if they want to save? How many times have you deployed an application without directions on how to use that application somewhere that's quickly accessible for the average user? Hell, I can't tell you the last time I wrote a proper Using this Database Application Design Element!

Sure, some people are going to complain no matter what the situation - and you'll eat your own ear trying to make them happy! - but the majority of the user communities that I deal with just want something that gets the job done and that they can rely on.

... just something to keep in mind, I suppose.

About the author: Chris Toohey

Thought Leadership, Web & Mobile Application Development, Solutions Integration, Technical Writing & Mentoring

A published developer and webmaster of, Chris Toohey specializes in platform application development, solutions integration, and evangelism of platform capabilities and best practices.

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