Addressing Issues vs. Assessing Unproblematic Uses (Rant)

A good example of something I tend to dislike, in geek culture. Users who are talking about issues they have are getting confronted with evidence that they may be wrong instead of any acknowledgment that there might be an issue. Basically, a variant of the “blame the victim” game.

Case in point, a discussion about memory usage by Firefox 3, started by Mahmoud Al-Qudsi, on his NeoSmart blog:

Firefox 3 is Still a Memory Hog

Granted, Al-Qudsi’s post could be interpreted as a form of provocation, especially given its title. But thoughtful responses are more effective than “counterstrike,” in cases in which you want to broaden your user base.

So the ZDNet response, unsurprisingly, is to run some benchmark tests. Under their conditions, they get better results for Firefox 3 than for other browsers, excluding Firefox 2 which was the basis of Al-Qudsi’s comment. The “only logical conclusion” is that the problem is with the user. Not surprising in geek culture which not only requires people to ask questions in a very specific way but calls that method the “smart” one.

How to ask a question the Smart Way

One issue with a piece like the ZDNet one is that those who are, say, having issues with a given browser are less likely to get those issues addressed than if the reaction had been more thoughtful. It’s fine to compare browsers or anything else under a standardized set of experimental conditions. But care should be taken to troubleshoot the issues users are saying they have. In other words, it’s especially important for tech journalists and developers to look at what users are actually saying, even if the problem is in the way they use the software. Sure, users can say weird things. But if developers don’t pay attention to users, chances are that they won’t pay attention to the tools the developers build.

The personal reason I’m interested in this issue is that I’ve been having memory issue with both Firefox 2 and in Flock 1.4 (my browser of choice, at least on Windows). I rarely have the same issues in Internet Explorer 7 or Safari 3. It might be “my problem,” but it still means that, as much as I love Mozila-based browsers, I feel compelled to switch to other browsers.

A major “selling point” for Firefox 3 (Ff3) is a set of improvements in memory management. Benchmarks and tests can help convince users to give Ff3 a try but those who are having issues with Ff3’s memory management should be the basis of a thoughtful analysis in terms of patterns in memory usage. It might just be that some sites take up more memory in Ff than in other browsers, for reasons unknown. Or that there are settings and/or extensions which are making Ff more memory hungry. The point is, this can all be troubleshot.

Helping users get a more pleasant experience out of Ff should be a great way to expand Ff’s userbase. Even if the problem is in the way they use Ff.

Ah, well…

Browser memory usage – the good, the bad, and the down right ugly! | Hardware 2.0 |

5 thoughts on “Addressing Issues vs. Assessing Unproblematic Uses (Rant)”

  1. Really interesting. Yeah, I agree with this in principle. Listening to what people say is better. I’m wondering how far this goes. So if someone comes to me and says, “the problem with this gun is that every time I point it at my head and pull the trigger it tries to blow a hole in me,” I’m not inclined to give credence to the interpretation that the gun is the problem.

    If a student comes to me and says “the problem with your class is that you make us work too hard,” it would be smart of me to think about whether I could market the hard work to them in a more motivating way. But the hard work is itself certainly not the problem.

    If a friend complains about how miserable to him the humans at his work are, across several different jobs that look pretty good from the outside, and upon careful listening it turns out that the content of their bad behavior is that they fail to conform to an impossible set of unrealistic ideals, I’ve got some different ideas than him about what the problem is.

    And where memory is concerned, the question is whether the program uses more than it ‘should’ – in relation to what? An adequate response then is, in relation to these industry-standard benchmarks it does pretty well. That’s the second turn in the conversation. The third turn is to specify the relation one is finding trouble with more exactly. Of course that ‘should’ have been the (smart) first turn. And in the absence of that the (smart) second turn ‘should’ have performed a disambiguation. Failing these perfections, a few more turns will be necessary, neh?

  2. @Carl Riiight….
    As you prolly guessed, I was trying to avoid the “but it’s a user problem” line. Of course, it might be a user problem. But, in some contexts, dealing with user problems is the only way to make “use” widespread.
    The gun example isn’t very good. If the user survives, and doesn’t particularly like the “hole in own head” feature, chances are that s/he will just drop the gun.
    The student example is a bit better. If a teacher makes a course revolve around “hard work,” and if “hard work” isn’t the primary goal of the course, it might make sense to discuss what can be done to decrease “hard work” while maintaining the value of the course. In some cases, adapting teaching to learning contexts requires some reassessment of goals.
    The friend example is a good example of what I meant by “addressing issues.” Depending on your notion of friendship, taking for granted he really is a friend, there’s a lot that can be done to solve the situation with minimal effort (but a lot of tact).
    As for the memory issues, the standard isn’t, in fact, a set of benchmarks. It’s the so-called “real-life situation.” Computer journalists seem to labour under the impression that not only can they emulate this “real-life situation” out of their own design but that their design is representative of the way “normal people” use technology. Not a safe bet. Especially not safe is the conclusion that, because the technology is superior, discussions of difficulties using it should be relegated to complaints about “lUsers” who “don’t use the software the appropriate way.”
    My rant was based in no small part on ESR’s “Smart Way” piece as well as on reflections about “early adopters.” There’s now a growing sense that products which are enjoyed by übergeeks may never make it to the mainstream. Firefox isn’t an example of this issue, it’s “mainstream enough.” But for Firefox to become a vehicle in the widespread adoption of geek-friendly software, addressing, in as thoughtful a manner as possible, such issues as perceived memory problems is a much better solution than ending the conversation at “it’s a user problem and I can prove it.” The impression that technology can solve social problems rests on a mechanical metaphor for society.
    A bit outdated, ain’t it?

  3. It’s funny to me how we’re crosspurposing a little here. I see that you’re talking about user empowerment and corporate insensitivity. And quite right. I’ve been working the entitlement angle over at my own joint, so I’m currently oriented toward incredulity about the metanarratives of corporate insensitivity. My general point is that there are two steps that ‘should’ precede deciding 3) someone else is the problem: 1) exploring the possibility that I’m the problem, 2) considering whether there might not be a problem. You know I’m talking about reframing.

    In my view empowered people almost always stop at 1) or 2). Entitled people leap straight to 3). When empowered people get to 3), it’s in the form of a conversation, not a lament. They expect some miscommunication at the beginning and they’re down for their half of the multistep clarification process. My own view is that if I’m the one raising a problem, I’m down for far more than half of the clarification process. But I was raised by wolves. So I’m definitely NOT trying to avoid the user problem line, but again, I see that and why you are.

    Firefox is an interesting case. Its general context as far as I can see (and you know way more about this, so please set me straight) is Microsoft, Internet Explorer, open source, and Apple. Windows is the market juggernaut and IE comes free with it. For all of the ordinary purposes Windows and IE work adequately, so for the vast majority of users there is no technical reason to use or even know of anything else. It’s the Chevrolet/Budweiser of the computer world. Apple has some niche life as a very moderately better version of what Microsoft is. Like Saab or Heineken, creative and wannabe-creative types who fancy themselves connoisseurs are its main/best clientele. Open source has some very real technical advantages, like a microbrew, but for exactly those reasons sheds Apple’s portion of the market that need/want their products homogenous and neatly prepackaged.

    Firefox accordingly straddles two niches – power users who have achieved Microsoft escape velocity, and disgruntled Microsoft users/haters quixotically resisting its nefarious grip on their computing. The latter are by far the larger segment, and logically the target. For them all Firefox has to do is work roughly as well as IE and look a little different. Incidentally, I am in this group. As far as I can tell, the people you’re talking about here are the former. They’re admirable, but not especially weighty in the development and marketing logic?

  4. Btw, your assessment of my examples is right on but ‘rationalistic’. I know lots of people who keep blowing holes in their heads and blaming everything but the fact that they’re pointing guns and pulling triggers. Like the chubby guy (e.g. me) for whom it must be glands because it can’t be those three drinks every night.

    Hard work is not an end, it’s a means to achieve ends (although the ethic of hard work might in some cases be an end). Again, I regularly find people who want the ends without wanting the means.

    As for the friend scenario, and here I have several specific people readily in mind, after trying quite a variety of tactful 3)s I have retreated to 2) in the face of their apparently unshakeable and indeed, morally adamant commitment to being miserable. As the old joke goes, it only takes one freudian psychologist to change a lightbulb, but it may take a long time and then only if the lightbulb really wants to change. This may be an area where you are far more skilled than I.

  5. @Carl Thanks for the elaborate replies. Obviously, because you’ve been commenting on several of my posts, I’ve been expecting comments like these. In fact, in this case, I was half-expecting that you would give me another “you call this a rant” taunt (with associated gender-neutral “doll”).
    I don’t dislike the three-step process you outline. Sometimes, what seems to be needed in those online “debates” I’m alluding to, is a bit less of the “knee-jerky” and a bit more of the “reflective.”
    The entitleds you describe are quite typical of the tendency I was ranting about. Before looking at the possibility that, maybe, the software may not work extremely well in a given context, they jump to the conclusion (and at the opportunity to say) that the user is the problem and that nothing else can be done. I’m not evading the user-problem issue. I’m trying to see that user-caused problems are important too. Sure, they’re difficult to solve. But there are better approaches to solving them than accusing people of lying, of being n00bs, of having unrealistic expectations, etc.
    Was rereading an old (private) message by a blog software developer. After admitting my puzzlement about some of the software’s features, I had told him: “Maybe I’m thick but, if so, getting thick users to grok the concept could be your path to victory.” To which he replied: “I doubt that you are thick. I always blame the software not the user :)” (in context, this seemed to mean: “even if you are thick, it’s my responsibility to make the software make sense”). This was, to me, an excellent example of cluefulness.
    I think this is exactly what FLOSS needs. Sure, I tend to react strongly to arrogance and entitlement. But the reverse is also true: I react very positively to this type of humility.
    As for my rationalist’s reaction to your example… Yes, these person-centric issues do happen. What I’m trying to point out is that technology-centric solutions to people-centric issues may not work.Was thinking of that other post, on social sciences. Wrote most of it two weeks ago.

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