Coined a New Term: Computer Plumber

I did some printer support over the weekend, which reminded me of the whole “facebook login” fiasco from earlier in the month.

Long story short, the person I was supporting couldn’t get Windows to recognize the printer.

The PC tower was under a desk and in a difficult spot to reach. The area was so snug that the cable actually did feel like it was in a port, but when I finally got in there, turns out the printer wasn’t plugged into the back of the PC at all.

The USB cable was resting snugly between two other cables directly over the port, but it wasn’t actually making contact. I finally found an open USB port nestled between the network port and two occupied USB ports.

No way I could have found that just by touch.

This diagnosis made the person feel stupid, and before you agree, let’s examine the facts.

This isn’t as obvious to everyone as it may seem to you. The instructions from the printer manufacturer can’t be specific for every single computer configuration out there. Case in point, what if you have an iMac?

The iMac’s design removes the need to dig under a desk, and the ports are separated enough to ensure you don’t get the same bogus feeling that a cable is plugged in when it ain’t.

Still, if you had an iMac, you might not be able to follow the instructions for a standard PC tower. So, this was a combination of generic instructions and cost/space-saving design.

Add to that the fact that this particular user wasn’t very spry and couldn’t dig around like a computer plumber under the desk.

If the “facebook login” fail hadn’t been top of mind, I probably would have been less forgiving, which leads to another problem: geeks breed arrogance.

I don’t think of myself as arrogant, but in this situation, what seems dead obvious to me leads me to question the user’s savvy. That’s not the way technology should work.

The power of technology is its ostensible ability to make life easier, but there are too many caveats and too much to learn.

Recalling my days in consulting, the worst part of the job was training users, not because of them, but because I never felt I could give a good answer to questions like “Why can’t I do this like I did in the old system?”

Training is painful, and retraining is a nightmare.

This whole thing and the iPad discussion had me thinking about design. Even good design is trumped by the backwards compatibility demon.

Once you release a feature, you can never take it away because someone might be using it.

Or more accurately, if you take away a feature, you’d better be ready to defend yourself or ignore the revolt.

I’m reminded of a few years back when serial ports began to disappear in favor of USB ports. A buddy of mine made a laptop decision solely because he needed a serial port to connect to machines in his data center rack. He was peeved.

Definitely a corner case, but an unhappy one.

So, I’ll be watching the iPad’s debut and rollout with interest. We’re at an interesting time now, where the bell curve’s requirements are driving simpler, easier design, which is leading to sanitized intertubes and locked down systems.

As geeks, we rebel against these things, but is it because we want freedom for all or it is because we want to preserve our mystique? Probably a bit of both and some other stuff too.

Find the comments and discuss.

Semi-related update: Found another instance of “facebook login” here for “cancel google” h/t Google Blogoscoped. There have to be tons of these out there.

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

12 comments

  1. Now that you work for a hardware manufacturer, perhaps you should consider a semi-related question – where should USB (and other) ports be located on a computer?

    If you locate USB ports in the back, then you have access problems such as the one that you encountered.

    If you locate USB ports in the front, then there's the danger of ports being knocked out of place.

    If you locate USB ports in both places, then you add to the cost of your hardware, which could be deadly in a low-margin business.

    (And if you go wireless, then you need to explain that wireless is not completely wireless. Some time within the last month (probably in relation to “Facebook login”), I remember reading about someone whose wireless computer wouldn't work. It turns out that the user wasn't connecting the power cord; after all, it was a wireless computer, wasn't it?)

    As the AppsLab blog has noted in the past, anyone who produces general purpose hardware and software has to somehow please a very wide variety of users. Because of this, design questions such as “where do we put the USB ports?” can potentially become agonizing decisions – unless you have a Steve Jobs-like character who says “We're going to do it like this, and our customers had better admire our superior design.”

  2. I would put the USB ports on the front, even on the iMac, which has the best placement for a desktop machine. I don't see a danger in knocking anything out of place.

    Look at TVs as an example. RCA jacks used to be only on the back, but as gaming consoles and camcorders became popular, they added a set to the front.

    A bigger problem is the proliferation of USB devices, which necessitates a USB hub. You could solve the problem by leaving a couple ports on the back and including a hub which could be placed in an accessible location.

  3. Yeah, I hope I wasn't showing any crack while I dug around under the desk. Back in the day, they made us wear suits, which was always fun for mucking around with racks and digging under desks.

    Desks need to have power and USB built into them for easy access. I saw a hack for that on Lifehacker, super useful.

  4. Whoever designed the micro-usb for my phone ought to be sentenced to trying to use it in a dark car daily for the rest of eternity.

    Any toddler with a fork can find an electrical outlet, why can't computer plugs be so easy? Fisher-Price ought to go into the plug business. Or http://www.gadgetcool.com/gadgets/Toys/113/Funn… (my younger kid loves these)

    After having a Belkin “just work,” then get blown out by SDGE installing “smart meter,” then going through cisco wireless hell, I'm convinced we need some standards where things “just work.” We not only aren't there now, but we're going backwards.

  5. Micro-USB for iPhone? Haven't heard of that, but can't say I'm surprised. Apple makes a business out of specialized adapters for their crap, e.g. micro and mini-DVI to VGA adapters, the iPhone and iPad proprietary ports.

    I have to agree that we should either make stuff just work or go into the adapter business 🙂

  6. Now that you work for a hardware manufacturer, perhaps you should consider a semi-related question – where should USB (and other) ports be located on a computer?

    If you locate USB ports in the back, then you have access problems such as the one that you encountered.

    If you locate USB ports in the front, then there's the danger of ports being knocked out of place.

    If you locate USB ports in both places, then you add to the cost of your hardware, which could be deadly in a low-margin business.

    (And if you go wireless, then you need to explain that wireless is not completely wireless. Some time within the last month (probably in relation to “Facebook login”), I remember reading about someone whose wireless computer wouldn't work. It turns out that the user wasn't connecting the power cord; after all, it was a wireless computer, wasn't it?)

    As the AppsLab blog has noted in the past, anyone who produces general purpose hardware and software has to somehow please a very wide variety of users. Because of this, design questions such as “where do we put the USB ports?” can potentially become agonizing decisions – unless you have a Steve Jobs-like character who says “We're going to do it like this, and our customers had better admire our superior design.”

  7. I would put the USB ports on the front, even on the iMac, which has the best placement for a desktop machine. I don't see a danger in knocking anything out of place.

    Look at TVs as an example. RCA jacks used to be only on the back, but as gaming consoles and camcorders became popular, they added a set to the front.

    A bigger problem is the proliferation of USB devices, which necessitates a USB hub. You could solve the problem by leaving a couple ports on the back and including a hub which could be placed in an accessible location.

  8. Yeah, I hope I wasn't showing any crack while I dug around under the desk. Back in the day, they made us wear suits, which was always fun for mucking around with racks and digging under desks.

    Desks need to have power and USB built into them for easy access. I saw a hack for that on Lifehacker, super useful.

  9. Whoever designed the micro-usb for my phone ought to be sentenced to trying to use it in a dark car daily for the rest of eternity.

    Any toddler with a fork can find an electrical outlet, why can't computer plugs be so easy? Fisher-Price ought to go into the plug business. Or http://www.gadgetcool.com/gadgets/Toys/113/Funn… (my younger kid loves these)

    After having a Belkin “just work,” then get blown out by SDGE installing “smart meter,” then going through cisco wireless hell, I'm convinced we need some standards where things “just work.” We not only aren't there now, but we're going backwards.

  10. Micro-USB for iPhone? Haven't heard of that, but can't say I'm surprised. Apple makes a business out of specialized adapters for their crap, e.g. micro and mini-DVI to VGA adapters, the iPhone and iPad proprietary ports.

    I have to agree that we should either make stuff just work or go into the adapter business 🙂

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