It's not just your computer - everything is too hard to use

I wrote an article a few years ago about how difficult it is for non-tech people to manage the fiddly bits required to run a Windows computer. It’s one of the things that drove the transition from computers to phone and tablets.

An interesting thing is happening today. The explosion of devices, products and services is causing just as much confusion and frustration in the world of mobile devices. We embraced smartphones in part because they were simpler to use than computers, but that simplicity is disappearing fast.

The big companies – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Samsung – are fiercely competing to lock you into their ecosystems, which means overlapping and inconsistent services and apps. At the moment the giant tech companies have no incentive to cooperate or set up standards. Even within the offerings from a single company, though, everything is built on the assumption that people are following along and have a base-level knowledge of technology. But most non-technical people, and even many tech folks, are unsure about what services they are using (or should use), and have a very shallow knowledge of the ones they use every day.

If you help people with tech issues at any level – whether you’re providing IT support,  or you’re the person down the hall in a business, or you’re just the smartest person in the family – you can’t assume that anyone knows anything about technology. There is more confusion and less understanding than you realize. The people you’re helping don’t know that their wi-fi has a password, they don’t know what Bluetooth is or how it relates to their earbuds, they may not have any clear knowledge of what an app is. The tech world has far outpaced what most people are able to follow. There’s no fault and no blame. That’s not the point. It’s just the reality of our complicated world in 2019.

Nilay Patel wrote an insightful article at The Verge last week with a list of questions he’d encountered over the holidays from non-tech people and family members, showing how confused people are that are not in the tech bubble. The number one item on his list: “No one knows how Facebook ad targeting works and everyone assume their phones are listening to them. This, without question, is the number one thing people talk to me about lately. Everyone has a story about how they’ve never searched for something, but saw an ad for it after talking about it with a friend. Everyone.” If you want the statistics, a survey appeared today confirming that most people don’t know how Facebook advertising works.

Nilay’s article has a list of things that the tech industry assumes everyone knows but which are actually extremely confusing to many people. I’ll give you my own list of questions that come up frequently in my conversations. You might know the answers to some or all of them but the people looking to you for help don’t have a clue. It’s a dilemma with no simple answers. We are in thrall to fragmented systems run by companies with conflicting goals and difficulty with clear explanations.

Tech is too hard!

Some of the things that people find frustrating and confusing:

Where are my pictures? Most people find a routine with their photos that works for them, but very few actually know where their photos are stored or how to retrieve them other than on their phones. Young’uns are fine with photos on Instagram that might disappear someday, but anyone older than 35 grew up with packrat instincts and find it alarming that they don’t know if their pictures are backed up. iPhone users have a vague idea that iCloud has some role but they’re not sure of the details. I nudge people to Google Photos but that requires installing an app and knowing the credentials for a Google account, not to be taken for granted.

What is iCloud? This is the real question underlying many conversations with iPhone users. They get vague notices about iCloud storage space but they don’t know what’s being stored. Many people aren’t aware they can log into iCloud to track down a missing phone, and they have almost no understanding of iCloud’s other services.

Where is my email? I can’t tell you how many business users with Outlook on their computer literally don’t know that their email account has a password. Almost everyone sets up the default mail app on their phone without realizing they are making a choice. Samsung phones have two built-in mail apps, from Samsung and Google, each with its own vocabulary for setting up new accounts and each with a different screen layout. iPhone users use Apple’s mail app and are confused if I suggest using Google’s Gmail app or Microsoft’s Outlook app. And of course there are more barriers in the technical differences between Exchange and IMAP and POP3, and the inconsistent vocabulary which means a Microsoft business mailbox on a phone might be called Exchange, Office 365, or Corporate – but NOT “,” which is different.

What mobile apps do I use? Mail is only one example of the power of the default. Too many people use Apple Maps and believe they’re using Google Maps. Anyone who uses Chrome on a computer might benefit from also using Chrome on an iPhone and having access back and forth to bookmarks and history, but too many iPhone users live with Safari because, well, it’s the default and frankly they don’t know the difference. Most people are unaware of the security and privacy implications of the apps they install.

Where are movies and TV shows? The proliferation of streaming services this year will cause blood pressures to rise when people realize they have no freaking idea where to watch something they read about. I’m already irritated when I can’t remember if the show I watched the night before was on Netflix or Amazon. What will it be like when content is fragmented among five or ten competing services? A separate problem is that people have no clue how to watch those services on their TVs. They’re confused by the difference between apps built into smart TVs and Roku and Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV – and who can blame them?

What do I do with this smart home device? Non-tech people should stay far away from everything to do with smart home devices. We’re flooded with smart light bulbs, smoke detectors, security cameras, doorbells, thermostats, and ten thousand more things in the pipeline. Frequently the setup is deceptively easy, usually with a phone app, but troubleshooting problems when the devices stop working is where it all falls apart. I just changed the wi-fi in my house and spent an hour and a half in hell because the process was different (and non-obvious) for each and every device to get them re-connected.

What accounts do I have? Why do I have so many passwords? Don’t assume people understand the whole concept of having an “account” for different services. Oh, sure, everyone thinks they have too many passwords, but they don’t really know why – what accounts they have or what services go with them, or what the relationship is with that company. They don’t know what they’re paying for, or what the real cost is of a “free” account. And no one quite understands what it means to log into one service with authentication handled by a different service – “log in with your Facebook account,” “log in with your Google account.” Like so many things, people get set up so a service works, more or less, but it goes sideways when something goes wrong and it’s time to reconstruct the relationship or clean up after a hack.

What is a Microsoft account? I work with small businesses so I’m sensitized to the complete hash that Microsoft has made of its accounts, with a “personal” account and a “work or school” account and no clear explanation of what in the hell they’re talking about. No one knows where the license comes from for their Office programs; in fact, it’s fair to say that most people have no clue that a license is required for the programs. When you add the unforgiveable confusion of duplicative names and overlapping services (I’m looking at you, OneDrive and Office 365), it’s probably for the best that Microsoft is backing away from the consumer market.

Where are my files? Are they backed up? It’s all too easy now for people to lose track of where things are stored. Microsoft was on the right track when it brought everything into the User folders on computers (Documents, Pictures, etc.), but then lost everyone when it started pressing everyone to use OneDrive and perhaps even redirect the user folders online. Add Dropbox and Box to the mix, stir with Google Drive, add some content created on phones and tablets, and the result is a lot of blank stares when it’s time to locate missing files. I’ve never met anyone who could tell me confidently what backup program they were using on a computer.

What is a router? Where does wi-fi come from? What’s the difference between Bluetooth and wi-fi? Although the technical underpinnings are a mystery, of course, I’m finding that people understand more of their home Internet connections than I expect. They can find the router when prompted and they frequently know the security code for their wi-fi. Most home users simply accept whatever is provided by their ISP, so they’re taken by surprise that something like mesh network devices exist, but that’s not a surprise. Bluetooth is more annoying than misunderstood.

Where is the headphone jack on my new phone? Mostly deep sighs and resignation for this one.

Why can’t I buy a Kindle book on my iPhone? It’s easy to forgive people for being confused by this one. They’d be horrified if they knew the details of what Apple demands from companies and app developers as the price to be on an iPhone.

Why am I getting weird search results on my computer? After a while even non-tech users became familiar with adware, the rogue programs that cause popups and crashes. The new vector for adware is in Chrome extensions, and that’s a step too far for most people, who are not aware of what Chrome extensions are, period, full stop.

Our technology should be getting easier to use, because that’s our fundamental need. Systems should work together naturally; we should be able to count on security and privacy being built in very deeply. None of that is happening as big companies compete and our devices become more complex. The problem will get worse as AI starts to produce inferences about our lives that range from creepy to uncanny witchcraft, and which the big companies literally cannot explain in any meaningful way. As one writer put it: “Technology continues its fantastic pace of accelerating complexity — offering efficiencies and benefits that previous generations could not have imagined — but with this increasing sophistication and interconnectedness come complicated and messy effects that we can’t always anticipate. It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable.”

Don’t assume anything about the technical knowledge of people that you’re helping. In the words of Nilay Patel, ask yourself: “Why doesn’t all this stuff work together better? Why is everything named so poorly? And most of all: why is it so hard for these companies to just explain what’s going on?”

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