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Stupid user tricks 7: True tales of extreme brain fail

JR Raphael | April 16, 2013
Ah, users -- if it weren't for them, technology would work so well.

What do you do when you send a 600MB email and it doesn't go through right away? Try, try again. The user re-sent the message four more times, then asked multiple coworkers to try sending it as well. By the time all was said and done, 12 emails with 600MB attachments were piled up in the mail server.

"The attachments not only crashed the Exchange server cluster [but] also crashed the archive system. Made for a fun day flushing the files out!" Cutrer jokes.

The company, Cutrer discovered, did not enforce a hard limit on file attachment sizes, instead giving users cheery warnings that large attachments weren't supported and shouldn't be sent. Whoops.

The moral: Friendly warnings aren't enough. If an action can bring your system to a halt, don't give users the option to do it. Given the opportunity, one of them invariably will.

Stupid user trick No. 6: The customer is not always right

As anyone who's ever manned the help desk can attest, computer users say the darnedest things. And they're always convinced they're right.

In the late '90s, Mike Ellsworth -- now a managing partner at Social Media Performance Group -- helped develop a Web-based sales application for marketing research firm ACNielsen. One day, a frontline customer support rep sent a call his way. The woman on the line was boiling mad because she couldn't get the application, which required dial-up access to the Internet, to function.

"I went through all the standard questions regarding the software and hardware and even asked her to look behind the computer to see if the phone line was plugged in," Ellsworth says. "'Yes,' she said irritably. 'It's plugged in -- your stupid application just doesn't work.'"

After investigating every possible cause he could think of, Ellsworth decided to honor Occam's razor and go back to square one: He asked the caller if the other end of her phone line was actually plugged into the wall jack.

"After a moment of silence, she said, 'Does it need to be?'" Ellsworth recalls. "I guess she thought she had wireless access years before it was available."

The moral: Don't give users too much credit. If there's an absurdly simple explanation for a problem, no matter how insultingly obvious it might seem, there's a good chance it's right.


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