Commentary: You’re not stupid, your computer is

Life is harder than it has to be. Particularly the high-tech stuff.


Microsoft Word, for example.  Has the “Help” function ever helped you?


I didn’t think so.


You may think that’s a frustration that only occurs with Microsoft products. It isn’t. It’s the industry standard.


In fact entire new industries have sprung up to provide answers to tech questions, including a best-selling “Word for Dummies” book, one volume in a vast library of books for dummies.


But here’s the thing: you’re not stupid, your computer is.


And I know why.


But before we get to my explanation, let me just point out that poorly written instructions aren’t just an issue with software producers. They make virtually every aspect of your life harder.


Here’s an example. The other day a nice lady sent me an invitation to cover an event.  She was nice enough to “attach directions.”


Here is what she wrote:


“Once you are on the mainline, you will not turn off until you come to the facility.”


It turns out “the mainline” is officially the “Hoh Mainline Road,” an obscure little byway — a glorified trail, really — into the Olympic National Park. Moreover, it is located 14 miles south of my Forks office and “the facility” is another 11 miles down it.


As I mentioned, this lady is very nice. She attached the directions in order to be helpful.


So how could she do it so unhelpfully?


Because she’s an expert. She works at “the facility” and drives there every day. It is second nature to her.

If you want to experience the same phenomenon, here’s a simple way to do it. Walk into a hardware store and tell the salesman you would like to purchase some nails.


“Well,” sez he. “What kind do you want? Casing, box, finishing, masonry, hang?”


I answered, “The kind used to hold two pieces of wood together.”


He nearly sprained his eyeballs by rolling them so hard.


So it is with the people who write the help sections for software, only worse. Because, you see, they wrote the software.


They too always begin with the tech-speak version of “once you’re on the mainline.”


Geeks suffer from too much specialized knowledge, which results in two symptoms: 1) they can no longer speak in plain English and 2) they think they’re smarter than you. The second is exacerbated by a paradox: The less they know about everything else in the world, the smarter they’re convinced they are.

What results isn’t so much a tyranny of experts, but rather a pain-in-the-buttness of them.


The solution

So here is the key: Software companies should hire people who don’t know anything about their software to write the user manual.


That’s because as he learns the software, the novice will never simply drop a step or assume you know something you don’t.


Simple, right? Common sense, right?


Not to the numerous software development companies I’ve written to over the years to complain about their instructions.


I just Googled myself to find some of the complaints I’ve filed in the past. For example, when Microsoft released its Internet Explorer 7, the menu on one of the websites I’d built couldn’t be seen with it. It simply disappeared. I wrote asking about the difficulty. The faceless support person on one of their numerous support forums answered:


“IE7 has made changes to both relative and overflow support, and that’s where your problem is sure to lie.”


Now, of course, 99 out of 99.2 people in the world don’t understand that, including me. The ones who do are insufferable.


I told the faceless person this would all work better for everyone if they would simply hire a good writer to prepare the technical manual. You know, someone who was learning to use the software.


To which he responded (I kid you not), “Try checking the nut attached to the keyboard.”


I virtually always get a response along those lines. As one person who was working a phone help line said in response to my idea, “but that would put me out of a job.”


True, I guess.


Now that I’ve mentioned this, you’ll see multitudinous examples of what we must soon, according to the trademark laws of the United States, call the “Couhig Conundrum.” (I’m hoping to make a lot of money off of this, like the “Peter Principle.”)


Like the Peter Principle, the Couhig Conundrum can be explained in one simple sentence:


Know-nothings, not experts, should always write instructions.


Reach Mark Couhig at

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