How the other half lives

Just a few years ago (only 5 years ago), I was a CTO in a global logistics company. Now, the logistics biz isn’t an industry where you can do your job if your PC isn’t working. You can’t just pull out paper and a pen and get anything at all done. 95% of the job is purely electronic.

The remaining 5% generated a heck of a lot of paper, though. While everyone could send and receive all manner of documents by email nearly instantly, almost every one of those documents needed to be resent … by fax.

You’d think that emailing a scan of a document, or a file that was a software-generated document would be simple, right?

Well, it bloody well isn’t.

What did we get?

We got TIFF files (single page, multi-page, and bizarrely concatenated end-to-end), we got PCX files (ditto), we got BMPs and PDFs, and Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel files. We got pages of documents encoded as videos.

We got documents unintentionally password-protected, empty attachments, self-extracting executables, all-black images, all-white images, truncated images, images that were scrunched down to illegibility, files that were infected with malware.

We got GIFs and RAWs and PPMs and PNMs and TGAs, and sometimes a holiday photo from someone’s collection instead of the document that was supposed to be there.

And half the time – for whatever reason – they never arrived at all.

When someone got an email with documents attached it was a matter for groaning and despair. The staff could never predict what hoops they would have to jump through to get them to the point where they could actually read the documents. And really, they didn’t want to know.

They just wanted it to work and never really quite grasped why a corrupted file in a bizarrely unusual format needed one piece of software or another, and why it choked with an error message.

And really, they weren’t all that much better at sending them either. Probably most of the attachments sent were empty, or blank (scanned the wrong side), or some other document that shouldn’t have been sent, or just plain sent to the wrong address. At least we didn’t send out any malware.

And this was after years of training and practice.

Eventually, the staff settled into a routine. If the document didn’t open first time, with whatever was configured as the default (and that was nearly all of them), they’d just send an email back and ask for the document to be faxed.

I’m told that things haven’t gotten any better in this regard since I threw in the towel. So, that’s still how it is happening.

You might think that it is an unusual situation, but it isn’t. To some degree or another, these technology problems are pandemic.

You and me? We don’t have any real troubles with sending and receiving emails. We’re the exception, and not the rule. For most people, the process is an adventure and not necessarily all that pleasant an adventure.

Given the option, probably half (actually, it’s probably more than half) of the people in the world wish they could never look at a PC again, and loathe the notion of being forced to use one in the office.

You and me? We’re in the other half.

I feel lucky to be in the half that I’m in. If you’re in our half (and face it, you probably are) the problem is difficult to even wrap your head around.

I don’t have any ideas about how to make technology and software more usable for the half that has trouble. Obviously Microsoft Bob is not the answer. Dumbing things down beyond a certain point is just counterproductive and makes things worse for everyone.

If it’s a socio-cultural problem (and there’s every evidence that it probably is), then we’re really looking at another two or three generations before most of us start to feel comfortable with the stuff that the rest of us take for-granted, and even write-off as ‘old hat’.

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