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is your techie fooling you badly

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 8 months, 4 weeks ago

Take heart, your techie is probably fooling lots and lots of other people too, including in my experience themselves.


A page of technology with relevance as well to human behaviour


Have you ever been to a corporate event where a techie showed you a whizz-bang website using a data projector and the latest Apple laptop?


Were you and the others impressed?


If so, I'm afraid you are (in one sense at least) a fool.


And hopefully, your techie knows that you are a fool. But possibly not, in which he/she is an even bigger fool. It happens. All the time.



Case 1: Invisible ink


Some years ago, I encountered a website which I couldn't read. I was using standard VGA and the then standard Windows colour pallete (in order to speed up an older computer), and the website was (professionally) written with beige writing on a pale green background. And on my screen, those two colours were identical.


I had a vested interest in that website as a supporter of the organisation, so I emailed them. No answer. For two years I occasionally tried to get their attention, in various ways. Then on an unrelated email group to which I subscribed the choice of colours for websites came up. I replied "If you want an example of what not to do, set your screen to VGA standard Windows pallete and look at..." and gave the URL.


But 24 hours later they fixed it. Fortunately I'd linked to a web archive version too! They never 'fessed up on the email group, but we had a big laugh about it (well, I guess someone from the organisation was lurking on the list, and perhaps they weren't laughing), and frankly they deserved it. The website had of course been written and tested and demonstrated on an Apple computer, and for more than two years many potential customers had found the site through Google or whatever, and had seen a blank screen, and had quietly gone away. (Or if they sent an enquiry I guess it got the same treatment as mine, and they then went away.)


Two years of losing customers just because of sheer incompetence. It happens all the time. 



Case 2: Not for sale 


That was the first time I'd met such stupidity, but it was not the last. There have been many others but the best yet was another organisation in which I had a similar interest. They were selling Christian literature, and I tried to buy some, but on the last screen there was no "checkout" button. This time I was a bit older and sadder and wiser, so I went to a library computer with the a biggest screen I could find. Sure enough, in the bottom right-hand corner, there was the "checkout" button. And I bought the books.


This time they answered my email. I quote the reply they gave: "Our consultant tells us that only 10% of the Internet use standard VGA..."  


So I replied to that "Let me paraphrase what your consultant has just told you: "One customer in ten can't use the website, and I don't care." "


They fixed it. The consultant then said he hadn't meant to turn off the scroll bars, and didn't realise they were turned off by default in the web design package they were using! The mind boggles. Surely, when someone complains that they can't see the button in the bottom right of the screen, that's the first thing you look at?


(And whether the "consultant" was being paid to do that I didn't bother to ask.) 


Unless you're a fool and your customer is also a fool, that is. The prosecution rests.  


But similar problems are inevitable unless the consultant builds or demonstrates or at least tests the website using the minimum configuration that the customer can be expected to use. Isn't that only sensible?


That's the solution. The obvious, complete solution. Everyone says they believe in testing. Everyone does it. But unfortunately, not everyone really believes in testing, even enough to think about the basics of what they need to test. To many, testing is an inconvenience and even an insult. And the software we have has such power that such fools can do really impressive stuff... impressive, that is, to other fools.



Case 3: Don't call us


The most recent stupidity. A whizbang Government website of a recent well-published (and presumably well funded) initiative, giving locations, maps, a search to find your closest locations, options to filter the search, opening hours of each location, all the frills. I turn up at an advertised location, having checked its opening hours minutes before, and there's a sign that says it's closed. No indication of when or whether it will reopen.


So I helpfully email the department, saying please update the website  They reply promptly and say the location is only closed temporarily, so they're not going to update the website.


What if I'd had three kids in the car all keen to use the facility and get on with the busy social and sporting calendar every schoolchild has these days? I didn't and I had printed out the next best location as well, and they were open. But I shouldn't need to do that.


So I reply and say not good enough, so how do I escalate this? They reply and say OK, now we will update the website after all, but it will take two business days, as the website design team are the only ones who can do it. And it turns out after several exchanges that the location is in fact permanently closed (as the sign indicated by omission) and the operators had not informed head office. Whether head office was still paying the bills I didn't ask.


And sure enough, two days later they remove the page on that location from the website, the location from the map, from the search engine, everything.


Ridiculous! Anyone who has bookmarked that page now gets a 404 error. What was needed was simply to update the opening hours, replacing them by the word "Closed", and leaving the existing links back to the other pages of the website (the map, the search box, the spin on how great this Government initiative is) all intact for those who want them... which would be every visitor, probably.


Take it off the map and out of the search database certainly (if you can, and it does seem that they're up to that at least). Nobody wants to find a permanently closed site, and of course the political spin doctors don't want to call attention to it either. But give the punters a break. At the very least have a catch-all page saying "that page has been renamed or deleted" and linking to the search engine, home page etc.. That's what the punters want. And it's not hard to do. All the necessary links are almost certainly already there in the default page CSS. Or they should be. But maybe they're hand-coding them on every individual page? Wouldn't surprise me. And getting paid by the hour to do it.


Becasue the most ridiculous thing is that every time the hours of operation of a location change, they pay the website designer to do the update... two days later. The website designer shouldn't be cheap (or if they are, there's the problem). Good work if you can get it.


The website designer may be twenty years out of date and honestly doesn't know how and why to design a website so that the relatively volatile content can be changed easily and cheaply and on a timely basis (it's called a CMS). But more likely, they know all about it but they also know that the management is twenty years out of date. So they're getting away with it.





Lesson One: Next time your consultant promises you a whiz-bang website demonstration, be a little smarter than them. Invite them to do it on your laptop, not theirs. Ideally, use the slowest laptop with the smallest screen and the slowest Internet connection you can find. And have a couple of others (including state-of-the-art, that's only fair) available to hot-swap in and see how it works on them too. But start out with a Windows machine (assuming of course that what you're selling is not Apple-only).


Be fair. Describe to your techie well in advance the low-end machine you want to use, and when (not if, when, try me) they say "that might be a bit slow" ask them exactly how much computer power, bandwidth etc the site requires, and what percentage of your customers are going to have problems because of this. (This all should have been in the original design documents... perhaps it even was. Find out. And either way you've learned something.)


And if they need to install software on your computer to run the website, that should be part of the demo. That's what your customers are going to go through. Again, be fair, your boss doesn't want to sit through the whole deal. But you should. Unless of course the website isn't yet working, just the demo. That's fine too. Just make sure this is understood, so the questions of "How much more time and money will it take to get it working?" can be asked.


But they will probably just refuse outright, on one or more of various excuses, and go over your head in the organisation to get you to stop "causing problems". (IBM's trick with me was always to go to my boss's boss, but he was no fool and it didn't work. The fact that they tried it repeatedly suggests that it often works.) In time you'll get used to this. Or if they're an even bigger fool, and the demo is a disaster, you'll get all the blame. 


Either way, you will no longer be quite as much of a fool, and you'll both have learned something.


Lesson Two: Don't let your techie answer the phone. Or let them be the only one to see and reply to emails saying that the site doesn't work. Because it's not in their interests to reply at all unless someone else is watching. And in my experience, often, they simply won't. And unless you have "tiger team" audits, nobody knows that they've ignored the complaints. A little segregation of duties is a lot cheaper than a tiger team. Just give the job of replying to and running with problem reports to someone who is focused on the customer, rather than on the website.  Isn't that also just sensible?


Do these two things and fairly quickly, neither you nor your techie will be a fool. Which will be hard-won progress I expect, because again from experience, your techie will fight it all the way, and then take all the credit for the improvement in the bottom line, while you just get criticism for making things more expensive and more difficult for such valuable and successful people. (See management by objectives and be very, very afraid.)


But it's progress, regardless. I spent my whole working life as a techie, but hopefully not a fool, and the fools took all the credit. But it was worth it.


See also 


the expert and the others


how to bust a bureaucrat






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