[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 
magically become.

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 
quite stable.

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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