Avoiding easy

When you spend all day work­ing with the same piece of soft­ware your def­i­n­i­tion of what is easy for some­one else becomes hor­ri­bly skewed. Since I started jam­ming with the CoPress gang in 2009, I have spent thou­sands of hours star­ing at a WordPress dash­board. It means much of the WordPress inter­face is easy for me. That’s dangerous.

I try to min­i­mize the num­ber of times I use easy in a sup­port reply. I avoid phrases like “Setting up cus­tom menus is easy…” or “Writing a new post is easy…” There are a few rea­sons for this.

First, if a fea­ture or prod­uct were legit­i­mately easy the user would not be writ­ing in to sup­port about how stuck they are. Sure, some per­cent­age of users will find ques­tions to ask about any inter­face. But do you want to start the con­ver­sa­tion by assum­ing the user falls into that per­cent­age? You ven­ture to learn much more if you assume the soft­ware is wrong, not the user.

Second, describ­ing some­thing as easy sets a dan­ger­ously high bar for the user when they walk away and try it for them­selves. Before you char­ac­ter­ize a fea­ture as easy you should be cer­tain it actu­ally is. If you say “easy” and the user does not get it they will, at best, feel like they are wast­ing your time and, at worst, feel like it is not worth using your product.

Finally, the worst part about say­ing a prod­uct is easy is that it imme­di­ately starts the con­ver­sa­tion by putting you in com­mand. You are the expert. You are the one who said it was easy. In some cases that is okay. It will work out. But doing so shuts down your oppor­tu­nity for learn­ing from your users. If, instead, you think back to the days when you did not know every­thing, you can start the con­ver­sa­tion on an equal ground. Help the user accom­plish their goal but also learn about where the pain points are so that you can make the user’s expe­ri­ence, and your prod­uct, better.

The best sup­port is a con­ver­sa­tion. The best sup­port hap­pens when a user learns how to do some­thing new and you learn about how your prod­uct can be bet­ter. This can only hap­pen when you do not imme­di­ately think of your soft­ware as easy, intu­itive, or sim­ple. If you can remem­ber that you too were once new to things you will end up with a bet­ter prod­uct and, most impor­tantly, hap­pier users.

Blogs, term papers, and a fear of what’s new

Cody Brown tweeted a link to this New York Times arti­cle ear­lier today about blogs and term papers. It’s a fairly shal­low piece with many things I’d enjoy respond­ing to, but I’ll pick one: the patron­iz­ing way the old guard por­trays newer forms of writing.

Here are two quotes from that arti­cle. The first is from Douglas B. Reeves, a colum­nist for the American School Board Journal:

It doesn’t mean there aren’t inter­est­ing blogs. But nobody would con­flate inter­est­ing writ­ing with premise, evi­dence, argu­ment and conclusion.

The sec­ond is from William H. Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review:

Writing is being mur­dered. But the solu­tion isn’t blogs, the solu­tion is more read­ing. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about them­selves and their home lives.

Fitzhugh and Reeves aren’t engag­ing with the idea of blogs from an aca­d­e­mic or evidence-based per­spec­tive. They seem to fear­ful of the new medium and seek to dis­credit it with all the tact of a gos­sip writer.

We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about them­selves and their home lives” is a great sound­bite, but it is ridicu­lous. First, are we so sure there is some­thing wrong with giv­ing kids an out­let to write about them­selves and their home life? Second, what does it mat­ter what the out­put is if the learn­ing that hap­pens in the process of get­ting there is sub­stan­tial? I think Fitzhugh and Reeves are far too con­cerned with the poten­tial out­put of these blogs than they are with what kids may learn by writ­ing in a medium they enjoy.

If you want to say that blogs have, through research, been the cause of decreas­ing crit­i­cal think­ing among stu­dents that is fine. Merely assert­ing it does not make it so, though. You need evi­dence to back your claims, just like the term papers Reeves and Fitzhugh glorify.

If, instead, you are going to char­ac­ter­ize the only ben­e­fit of blogs as the fact that some are “inter­est­ing” and imply that “premise, evi­dence, argu­ment and con­clu­sion” are only achieved through dead tree term papers, then you are full of it.

These two would be bet­ter off tak­ing Reeves’ advice and using premise, evi­dence, argu­ment, and con­clu­sion to ana­lyze writ­ing on the web.