[Mailman-Users] This is unixstuff warning
Chuq Von Rospach
chuqui at plaidworks.com
Thu Jun 14 19:48:56 CEST 2001
On Thursday, June 14, 2001, at 09:51 AM, J C Lawrence wrote:
> Yup. I see it in myself
Me, too -- lest anyone think I believe myself some instantiation of
perfection. What I try to do, though, is realize that I'm getting
grumpy, and then go somewhere quiet so that I don't leak my grumpy on
others. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I'll be the first
to admit that I'm sometimes ALL of the things I tend to rant about; it's
one reason why I am expert at ranting about them.
> 1) If possible make the "Right Thing" the obvious default for
> users. If not possible, make the "Right Thing" as close as you
> can to a "Duh!" thing (for them).
The harder you make it for them to screw up, the smarter your users will
The problem, of course, is that this is hard work. Most folks here know
I write email systems for Apple. Many of you also know I have an outside
consulting house (and attached hobby environment) at plaidworks. Have
any of you ever wondered why Apple allows such an obvious conflict of
interest -- an employee who also does the same thing as an outside
Here's why -- first, the plaidworks stuff existed before I did email for
apple. In reality, they more or less bought my technology (even though I
was working for apple at the time doing non-email things) and my outside
stuff is grandfathered. But my outside stuff is also my test environment
and my prototyping facility. The users there get to use the systems for
free, but they also have to put up with my installing stuff and trying
it out on them and giving me feedback. I've very carefully built a place
where I have a set of willing guinea pigs that I can throw stuff at, and
ask them to poke it, prod it, break it and then comment on it. And they
do -- and that population is widely diverse, from people who are
technically expert in any number of fields to people who can barely log
on to AOL reliably. and I've got them trained to talk to me, even
(especially) those naive AOL users.
Anyone else out there do that? There's a horrible history among techies
to "throw it over the transom" and assume everyone will understand it
intuitively and see the genius of it. I come out of the support ranks --
I started as a programmer, moved into system administration, moved from
there to support (ten years in the trenches with a phone welded to my
ear), and now, I'm building systems designed for non-technical users to
use. I've always felt every programmer in a company should spend three
months on a phone answering questions -- but it's impossible to find
programmers willing to do that, because, frankly, most can't handle it,
and most don't want to know what their customers think.
so I come from a different view of this than many programmers. A neat
hack is still a neat hack, but it means nothing if it doesn't make
things better for the end user (god, it's a very Tron-link koan, no?) --
and I think most programmers don't have a clue what their users want or
need, and don't particularly WANT to know. They want to pretend all of
their users are clones of themselves -- because deep down in side,
they're only interested in writing stuff for themselves.
And there are times when you ARE the expert and what the users want may
be wrong (the whole list-* argument that keeps coming up is a classic
case of the user asking for things the programmer shouldn't give
them) -- but for most stuff, you really ought to be not just listening
with the end users, but partnering with them. you write the code; but
they're the ones that help you understand how to make the code usable.
> I'd translate the reaction, as:
> "Umm, oh yeah. Well he's right you know, it kinda isn't a stupid
> luser problem, its uhh, that we didn't make the system help the
> user when we know we could have."
true, but -- nobody volunteered to actually fix the problem. Instead,
they all just got quiet. sigh. but I'm not surprised.
> Putting the self-destruct button in the middle of the steering wheel
> of the car
but that's okay, we put a nice sticker on it that says "don't push this
> I/we'll miss you. Go relax. Enjoy. Get some R&R. Take a deep
> breath. Please. Then hurry back -- there's a war on ya' know.
I am. I've lost almost two belt loops since I made this decision in
April (see, one thing that was always second on my priority list was
getting my weight under control). I'm getting LOTS done. I'm already a
lot less burnt out -- enough to sometimes be tempted to jump back into
things, but I realize I need more than a few weeks away from a modem.
and now that I'm headed rapidly towards my mid-40's, and I've been doing
this for 20 years plus, and maybe it's time for me to call it a day.
When have you done your time? I dunno -- but even pilots in Vietnam were
rotated home after they flew enough missions, even if the war continued.
(point of fact. I wrote my first BBS code, in fortran, in 1978. By
1980, it was being used by ~200 users across the state of california. By
1982, I was already involved in various technical and admin activities
in USENET, and in 1984, wrote the first usage guides for USENET (which
may or may not have been the first formal FAQ for USENET...) and coined
the term netiquette. And I've been doing stuff like that ever since...)
> AOL has how many million susbcribers?
Last number I had was 26 million.
> What MLM has a control and configuration interface that would appeal
> to the average AOL user?
well -- I think the one I wrote does pretty well (see:
although it's set up for a very specific type of mail list and wouldn't
generalize out to a discussion list. It handles about 25,000 database
updates a day (subscribe, remove, change), and requires, oh, 250-300
postmaster interventions a week or less, if you ignore having to
manually whack at bogus bounce messages that don't follow any usable
standard. And about 2/3 of those interventions are for people who don't
read the instructions and want us to do it for them (and it's our policy
to do so; they are, after all, our customers, and our position is that
we don't run these systems for OUR convenience. Something I think a lot
of list admins don't 'get' -- subscribers are your customers, not your
I'm currently trying (desperately) to finalize a project plan for my
next generation of my e-mail beasts. The current one was specced to work
well to a subscriber base of about 10 million users, and so far, so good
(fingers crossed). But if I don't upgrade it soon, I'm gonna have
problems, and it needs to do a whole bunch more, like full international
support. One of my current grails is to build a system that'll
automatically bring up pages in whatever language your browser says is
your preferred language -- I have a neat design for that, if it works.
> Would an MLM whose interface did appeal to the average AOL user be
> necessarily inherently broken/torqued/crippled in some way?
As I said in another message, sometimes the answer is to have an 'expert
mode' -- you have to make things easy for the naive users, but you
really don't want to do that by driving your geeks crazy. So build in
training wheels, and give them a switch that folds them back out of the
way -- and let the user decide when to flip it.
FWIW, I've studied user tendencies a lot. Almost invariably, here's what
you'll find. If you have something where you can set something one of
two ways (messages or digests, say), 10% of your users HAVE to have it
set one way, 10% of the users HAVE to have it set the other way, and the
other 80% will simply use whatever your default it. I'm not sure it
matters WHAT the default is or what you're setting, those numbers seem
This means two things to me. First, it's very important to set defaults
properly -- and frankly, messages/digest isn't a no-brainer, either. I
really think the default ought to be digest, but that's not how mail
lists operate. I think most naive users are happier with digests and not
as likely to understand it exists -- and the user who prefers messages
is more likely to know how to do that. And digest-as-default really
reduces the overhead on the server, too. But I'm not willing to make
that kind of change without a lot more research, since it'd be different
than most other systems. And second, it sort of points out how silly
most arguments over things like reply-to are; most users DON'T CARE. And
for those users that do -- you can find a similar group that wants it
the other way, too. Which implies admins shouldn't let the squeaky
wheels set policy, and it implies that people who write this stuff ought
to make EVERYTHING a user option if at all possible, simply to avoid
these arguments... (grin)
> In terms of geekdom there's more of Joe Redneck than there are of us.
We are, basically, the priesthood. Back in, oh, 1982 or 1984, the
Internet was the private hangout of that priesthood. I believe that
among the old pharts I know, a lot of the anti-user attitude is really a
wish to go back to the Good Old Days (whether conscious or not). And
that ain't gonna happen. A lot of my peers did their time and headed
off to the vacation house (and there are days when I wish I'd done so,
too). I've always felt there were new challenges and tried to reinvent
myself to deal with the changes that came along with the net over
time -- sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. I've generally had to
completely re-engineer my list systems every 18 months or so (or at
least redo the documentation from scratch) because the user population
changes enough in that time that things that used to be assumed have to
be explained, and technology changes require you to rethink what you do
and how you do it. If you want a real giggle, try to track down a
complete set of revisions to my user documentation for my lists, and see
how they change over the years (and how the underlying administrative
attitudes change, too...)
> "Are they so stupid that they can't see what I'm doing here?"
you know what? sometimes the answer actually IS yes. But I find it's a
lot less often than most folks want it to be.
Chuq Von Rospach, Internet Gnome <http://www.chuqui.com>
[<chuqui at plaidworks.com> = <me at chuqui.com> = <chuq at apple.com>]
Yes, yes, I've finally finished my home page. Lucky you.
Love is the process of my leading you gently back to yourself.
- Saint Exupery
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