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Along my career, I had to deal with users who think their computer could think:

My computer hates me!


He just do this so he could laugh at me!

This is often a joke, but some users are serious. It's easy when I know the causes of the problem, but when it's unexpected behavior it's more complicated. In those cases, I usually turn it as a joke, putting that on the fault of moon phases and tide, but they are likely to prefer their explanations.

Do you have any tricks to deal with those users?

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closed as off topic by ChrisF Oct 12 '12 at 22:43

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Put on a red robe and tell them that they have angered the computer's machine spirit! Prescribe necessary prayers to appease it. :) Good question! –  AndrejaKo Sep 9 '10 at 13:28
computer says no. –  Talvi Watia Sep 22 '10 at 11:27
Aside from technical support professionals who may deal with this on a daily basis, is there any constructiveness for programmers to discuss users who have problems dealing with cognitive dissonance? Does this in any way enhance a programmers' quality-of-work, career, or wellbeing? Or provide useful advice to software design / user experience? (Aside from the well-known "Exception handling is part of UX") –  rwong May 14 '11 at 11:08
@rwong You may notice that a rather old question: 8 months old, and this site is also 8 month old. So, this is one of the first question asked on the site and what was in/off topic was wot well defined at this time. Also note that getting feedback form users is important part of a development process. A programmer may have to where multiple hats, I personally got a "technical support" hat for the software that we use internally beside my phone. –  DavRob60 May 14 '11 at 12:42
@DavRob60: thanks for pointing out this question was one of the very first questions asked on this site. –  rwong May 15 '11 at 1:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

People think that because a lot of software and IT people reinforce the idea.

1) We write error messages that are terse and can imply that the user caused the problem.
2) We take great joy in continually recounting stories of dumb users and the errors they make.
3) We often forget that everyone has to learn this stuff sometime, and forget that we were all n00bs at some point, and can sometimes have a condescending attitude towards them that makes them defensive.

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Me a n00b??? Hogwash!!! –  ChaosPandion Sep 9 '10 at 17:31
4) All too often we write bad software that runs on bad hardware driving the users mad? –  Pieter B Oct 12 '12 at 21:59

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

I've had these users before. The best I've come up with is to explain that a computer is a deterministic machine, and can't hate them any more than a typewriter, a slide rule, or an abacus can.

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Computers are about as deterministic as shopping trolleys. –  Andrew Grimm Sep 23 '10 at 7:06
I think my abacus took out an insurance policy on me. I watch it night and day. –  Steven A. Lowe May 14 '11 at 7:39
You make it sound like it cant fail to do something(hardware) nor get sick and say.... replace letters on the keyboard with other letters nor close programs just because you move your mouse too fast on a particular part of a screen (real bug i read somewhere on SO/SE) –  acidzombie24 Nov 6 '11 at 9:37
@Andrew: "I swear that shopping trolley hates me, it never goes in the right direction..." –  Hugo Nov 6 '11 at 9:51

People have been anthropomorphizing machines for as long as there have been machines. The thing to remember is that computers are, by orders of magnitude, the most complex machines ever created by humankind, and that most people just don't get how they work. When somebody says their car hates them, the majority of the time they know perfectly well that it's having a perfectly ordinary mechanical problem (or a series of them). But a computer ... well, hell. Who knows how those things really work? Maybe it does hate me! And a joke/coping mechanism starts to sound like a perfectly good theory.

So, de-mystify it. Save the moon-phase jokes and chants of "The power of Babbage compels you! The power of Babbage compels you!" for fellow professionals. Emphasize that what you're dealing with is a malfunctioning machine, nothing more.

A good analogy is to liken a computer to a very bright but willful child that does exactly what it's told to do -- and could care less about what you want it to do. Ever seen that Bill Cosby routine where his kids come downstairs in their pajamas soaking wet because he didn't tell them to take off their pajamas before getting in the shower? It's exactly like that.

Tell them that when their computer does something stupid, it's usually because somebody told it to do something stupid. Maybe it was them. Maybe it was somebody who should have known better. Maybe it was a vandal. But whatever it is, it isn't the computer choosing to be a prick; and that if you can find and correct the Something Stupid it was told to do, the problem will just go away.

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When confronted with this situation I try and avoid the direct "It is a thing not a person !" approach for obvious reasons... Sometimes I can't avoid it and leave the room screaming and crying like a little girl.

On the off chance I do manage remaining calm I try helping the user, using a soothing tone of voice, in understanding a few basic concepts...

  1. Computers are incredibly dumb.
  2. Your cat is vastly more intelligent than any computer ever built...dogs I'm not so sure about.
  3. Computers only understand two things..on and off. Most people born after 1911 have heard this about computers and are thankful that, from your teachings, they now know what it means.
  4. So if computers have intelligence it is limited by only understanding yes/no, on/off, etc. So not smart.
  5. Computers will do exactly what you tell them to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. They will not do what you want them to do. Only what you tell them to do.
  6. If you tell your computer to delete all of your photos it will. Even if you don't want it to.
  7. You cannot physically break your computer unless you physically attack it.
  8. Your computer will not physically attack you. It is an electrical device so use while bathing is not advised.
  9. If you don't understand why you are clicking something then you have no idea what you are telling your computer to do...and I think you know what that means.
  10. A computer is kinda like a really big Swiss army knife and like a Swiss army knife you don't want more than a few blades out at once. You might cut yourself.
  11. A computer will never do anything for you. It will not do you work for you. It will not figure out a calculus problem for you if you do not know anything about calculus. This is because computers are not smart...remember ?

Most importantly.... A computer is just a tool. And like any tool the best way to learn is to use. With a bit of practice and a bit of pain you'll soon learn... This is one very cool tool. One than can change from a paint brush to a book in the blink of an eye. Magic.

I find Humans very smart...they can take basic concepts to very high levels. Unfortunately, many people approach computers thinking the machines are much more complex than they really are. When they start to understand why computers are stupid simple their confidence tends to increase and before long they will leave you alone....maybe....I doubt it....don't call me here.

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I challenge points 8 and 11. Computer will do your calculus homework for you. Example: wolframalpha.com/input/?i=solve+f%27%28t%29%3D%282V%29%2F%28R^2*e^%28‌​-2f%29%29%2C+f%280%29%3D0 (the link needs to be copy/pasted, it will not work if clicked) As for point 8, I've seen people who considered electric shocks form improper wiring as computer's response to their actions. The rest is correct! –  AndrejaKo Sep 9 '10 at 17:40
@Andrejako I consed point 8. On point 11 I would suggest that some knowledge of calculus is required if the answer is to have value...otherwise you don't even know if it is calculus. –  Rusty Sep 9 '10 at 17:53

It's not unusual for everyone to put human characteristics (such as love/hate) to non living objects. For example: my coffee machine really does hate me... it always drips all over my counter.

In my opinion it's in your benefit, it means they aren't blaming your application or website for the problem, instead they think their computer simply hates them.

Of course they will want to get to the reason of the problem though, and you can tell them that you're very good with dealing with computers. For the really crazy people you can simply say you are a computer psychiatrist and if you spend some time on the computer you can usually figure out it's problems and fix it.

If you can't fix your problem on their machine you could tell the user that their computer is possessed by the devil and the only way to fix it is to format the evil out of it.

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Now if they ask if you do exorcisms I think that is the proper time to say "I think I left my iron on.". –  ChaosPandion Sep 9 '10 at 17:33

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