Subject: Re: User-facing applications
From: Ben_Tilly@trepp.com
Date: Thu, 28 Mar 2002 13:25:23 -0500


Stephen Turnbull wrote:
> >>>>> "Lynn" == Lynn Winebarger <owinebar@free-expression.org> writes:
>
>     Lynn> BTW, I wasn't being deprecatory in my earlier message when I
>     Lynn> said the typical user views a computer as a magic box.
>
> No, of course not.  But you're kinda missing the point.  It's not your
> words that matter, it's the more or less willful misunderstanding of
> them by "magic box" users.  Here's what ESR says:

Actually your characterizing the user's responses as "more or less
willful misunderstanding" is treating them as being as much of "magic
boxes" as their treatment of computers.  The most common such
misunderstandings are quite predictable if you try.

The usual key is that if they see a subtle or not so subtle indication
that you think they are idiots, they generally react badly.  Reacting
badly includes not digesting the useful content in what you wrote.  In
fact I find it absurd how often people present massively valuable
content with insulting attitudes that guarantee that the content will
get ignored.  (And then proceed to be amazed at the predictable result.)

In this case I don't think that Lynn's characterization would have
caused problems given her overall message.  Most people view computers
as tools.  They want to use the tool to get their work done, and do not
want to (nor think that they should have to) become experts to do so.
This characterization will only cause a problem if you have made it
clear that you think that non-experts are morons who are beneath your
notice.

> http://tuxedo.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

Which stands as a class A example of how NOT to act if your goal is
communication, rather than pissing people off.  For an excellent
example of how to communicate, read the article he linked to at
http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/bugs.html.  Like ESR he is
giving advice on a topic which results in hackers thinking that users
are idiotic morons.  Unlike ESR, his message is delivered in a way that
results in postive behaviour modification.

> and here's what Eli Zaretskii had to say about _that_ (on comp.emacs,
> <3C91C3E0.393B05D@is.elta.co.il>, in full):
>
>     Eli> IMHO, it'd be a sad day when people who answer questions in
>     Eli> this fine forum will follow the ``standards'' of behavior
>     Eli> preached by this document.  Its implied assumption that
>     Eli> hackers cannot talk like civilized human beings, and
>     Eli> shouldn't be asked to, is especially disturbing.

I *absolutely* agree with Eli.

> Eli is (a) a Priest of Emacs, and (b) no wilting violet when it comes
> to telling people he thinks they're being useless or obtuse.  If he
> responds that way to something I consider a pretty sane collection of
> advice, it's no surprise that ordinary "but I don't _want_ to know how
> it works" users take as insults comments that we consider to be
> "obvious statements of fact".

I think you are missing what Eli was talking about.  The problem isn't
in what advice was offered, it is in how it was said.  ESR's style is
perfect if your goal is to cause people who have no business being there
to leave a busy development list.  It is abysmal if your goal is to
deliver clues to people who are (currently) lacking them.

The point of basic courtesy is not to be all nice and touchy-feely.  It
is to help get communication to happen.  If you want to communicate,
then don't start by pre-emptively shutting off lines of communication.

> In the context of comp.emacs, "talking like civilized human beings,"
> despite personally feeling this has nothing to do with civilization,
> is pure noblesse oblige.  But for many FSBs, it's an important part of
> marketing.

Whether acting civilized on a list is "pure noblesse oblige" depends on
what that list is intended to accomplish.  This is as true for FSBs as
for individuals, with the significant difference being that FSBs will
want individuals who work for them to be aware of how they are causing
the FSB to be perceived.

> Does this have something to do with the (stipulated) suckiness of OSS
> GUIs?  I dunno ... but I find it plausible.

Well, developers who take ESR's attitude will have a hard time finding
people who are willing to give them useful UI feedback...

Cheers,
Ben