Rules for Successful Decoding of User Terminology

Today provided support to a friend (good use of a public holiday? I can’t escape computers even if I try) While he is an expert in electronics, he is relatively clueless when it comes to operation of computer software. This reminded me of a key skill that is often forgotten among IT support staff: Decoding user terminology.

If you take a career in IT you must expect that users will come up with incorrect theories they’ll try to push on you, use confusing terminology, and try to take you down a wrong road of vain troubleshooting tasks.

But it’s not their fault. It’s the cause of poor design in computer systems with confusing error messages & strange processes that as computer experts we are so accustomed to we accept as normal. If you don’t believe this please read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman NOW! (

In today’s example a Windows XP home user had been one of those affected with Avast! annoying messages, and during removal attempts of software somehow got infected with viruses. Now Microsoft support assisted in removing said viruses. However the user remained distressed because support people had told him he “was crazy” when he suggested virus seemed to be coming back, and he suspected the cause was his Ethernet card. In fact when I initially got involved he suggested “Do you have a spare Ethernet card to test?”

Yes. We know this all sounds crazy. Microsoft told him that was crazy.

But here is the problem:

None of the other support people either explained or removed his perceived issue.

Rule #1 – Separate Facts and Opinions

The viruses had been removed. The increased HDD activity had nothing to do with a virus, but that’s the part of the description as an IT pro you have to strip out and focus on the real part: Connect to network = sudden increase of HDD. If necessary use tools such as Process Monitor or Process Explorer to link the activity to a specific process, etc. In this case simple use of task manager showed Windows Update became very active as soon as Ethernet was connected.

Rule #2 – Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

So the user told me they were on Service Pack 3. They had told Microsoft they were on Service Pack 3. They were not. They had two computers – one on Service Pack 2, one on Service Pack 1. The user believed both to be fully updated. It was easy to find out why: Previously he may have had Service Pack 3. However he had reinstalled Windows XP with automated installations provided from each hardware vendor. In addition he confused Anti-Virus updated with Windows Updates. When I talked about Windows updates, he talked about Anti-Virus updates…and called them Windows updates.

I could have accepted the users response and not checked and wasted hours investigating other troubleshooting options. But I did check. Out of pure paranoia & lack of faith, having been burned so many times in the past Smile

The laptop had failed to update due to the wrong date/time causing Windows Genuine Advantage to fail.

The desktop had what appeared as correct local time but wrong time zone, so effectively wrong time, but also was still on XP SP1 so Windows Updates no longer worked automatically. A network install of SP2 had to be manually downloaded and installed.

The bottom line is people may think their computer is in a specific state, that is what they’ll tell you. People don’t check, why would it have changed? To the user the act of re-installing Windows had nothing to do with changing the service pack level. Check yourself, it’s the only safe way, Or you can ask user please click here and then read this to me. It’s also why we use the classic phrase to check if someone is connected to LAN – We do not say “Is your LAN cable plugged in?” we say “Can you please disconnect and re-connect it?” It is the sure way of ensuring YES it’s plugged in. If we don’t do this, and if a person hasn’t unplugged their cable, they will automatically respond: Yes, it’s plugged in.

I’ve had other cases of totally wrong info provided to me, which only my pure distrust built-up through years of experience leads me to remain sceptical and not believe what I hear:

Onsite support: This machine is really slow to logon

Me: Is it on Wi-Fi or LAN?

Onsite support: It’s on LAN.

Me: Are you sure?

Onsite support: Yeah

Me: Did you check?

Onsite support: Yeah

Me: Can you go check again?

Onsite support: Yeah , it’s LAN.

Me: That was fast, can you please really go check?

Onsite support: Oh, it’s on Wi-Fi.

Rule #3 – Fix The Problem

Here the user believed it was related to Ethernet cable because as soon as he connected his cable the hard disk light went crazy. The machine was on SP2 and had no security updates since 2004, this linked to our finding Windows update going active on ethernet connection.

However the problem re-occurred as Windows update never could install SP3 due to failure of Windows Genuine Advantage. Why did this fail? Time & date on machine was wrong, fixing this allowed it to complete installation.

After SP3, IE8 and all post-SP3 fixes had deployed the problem of HDD going crazy when Ethernet is connected was fixed. I was able to provide an explanation of how connecting the LAN was linked to increased HDD activity.

If you fix the problem, you have credibility. If you don’t, they will not believe any of your explanations no matter how correct or logical they may be.

About chentiangemalc

specializes in end-user computing technologies. disclaimer 1) use at your own risk. test any solution in your environment. if you do not understand the impact/consequences of what you're doing please stop, and ask advice from somebody who does. 2) views are my own at the time of posting and do not necessarily represent my current view or the view of my employer and family members/relatives. 3) over the years Microsoft/Citrix/VMWare have given me a few free shirts, pens, paper notebooks/etc. despite these gifts i will try to remain unbiased.
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One Response to Rules for Successful Decoding of User Terminology

  1. David O says:

    Basically my entire day. Makes it worse when people think they know IT and start poking and prodding around in things they don’t understand…all of a sudden their font issue in word becomes a re-install of office!

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