December 13, 2010

Day 13 - Don't be a Human Keyboard

Written by Jordan Sissel (@jordansissel)

There are few things that quite irritate me more than when I accidentally take part in building a habit (or a culture) that treats people like human keyboards.

Humans are not meant to be buttons for pushing or functions for calling.

What does it mean to not be a human keyboard? Imagine for the moment that instead of typing on a keyboard or using a mouse, you had to speak at a person to perform any task?

"Go to my email."

"Show me that first message."

"Scroll down a bit."

"Scroll down a bit more."

"I want to reply to this email."

Imagine the terrible impact on productivity and agility by using such a computer interface! Further, your "check email" flow now requires two people (you + the human keyboard) - that means double the cost, double the typos/communication problems, etc! Yet, despite the silliness of this example, other, very similar situations occur quite often in business as interactions between employees making requests of each other.

In 2008, SysAdvent day 22 reported a subset of this problem - where people may tell you to implement a solution rather than telling you what problem they need solved. When Frank (fictional person) says "install Postgres on that server," he is treating you like a human keyboard. He isn't presenting you with a problem needing solved, he is telling you to implement a chosen solution (that may or may not work). You have a function being called and a result is expected. What result? You don't know the problem and lack context!

Let's ignore, for this situation, situations where it may be correct to accept input as "install this software." (or other examples)

The social problem with being treated like a keyboard is interesting. In the great acronym, PEBKAC, who is the user? I observe that you are the keyboard, here, and Frank (above) is the user. What happens if "install Postgres on that server" is obeyed correctly, but doesn't solve Frank's problem? Even though, in this instance, "Frank" is between the chair and keyboard (you), you may be blamed for his errors. That sucks, and you waste energy in a blame game rather than getting work done.

Another example of this is if a coworker asks you, rather than asking that well-publicized dashboard your team maintains, "is mysql down?" If you answer the question by checking the dashboard on their behalf and replying with the answer, you are only training the requester that you are the answer robot for mysql status. Instead, you should say "Check out the status here on the dashboard" and provide a URL. If you don't have a dashboard, maybe you have a FAQ page, or you dig and ask "What's the problem?"

Humans are creatures of habit. If you reinforce a behavior, it will persist, and even spread to other coworkers or users. You don't want to become the company-wide interface to answering the "is mysql down" question.

You don't want to become a human keyboard.

You have a options for avoiding turning yourself into a human keyboard, and solutions will vary by situation and audience. First, you can simply document common questions and answers. Second, you could (assuming skill/time/energy) automate answers that can't easily be documented - like creating a dashboard to answer service health status questions. Third, if you can't automate it, put requests like these through your ticketing system. Fourth, you can try to train the user to answer the question without invoking you.

Regarding the ticket system, if common requests require high effort, you can use features of your ticket system to track the number of these such requests and also time spent on them. This will help inform the business about the energy output of your group versus the energy requirements and can help steer hiring and other goals.

There are usually some red flags that tell me (even if only subconsciously) that a request is a "human keyboard" one: annoying requests, simple requests from technical coworkers, strange solution-based requests when you don't have context, etc. Personally, my signal is usually that a request is annoying.

Do you have users or coworkers who might treat you like a human keyboard? Go write that FAQ, make that dashboard, or add that ticket flow. You'll end up with less stress and more happy coworkers and users. The business will end up with higher quality support, faster turn-around times for simple requests, and better ideas about the kinds of things asked of you and your team.

Further reading:

  • Stashboard - Open Source status/dashboard
  • MediaWiki - a wiki for documenting things (like that FAQ you could write)

1 comment :

Ollie Jones+ said...

Thanks for this great post! It's taken me years, but I've learned that the simple question "why do you ask?" can show the way out of most human-keyboard pitfalls.