Tricks people do

Isabel and I spent some time chatting over junk-food dinner. The topic was the tricks that computer users do in order to go around little problems and nuisances with their computers.

It seems that many people devote more brain cycles to think of a hack to solve an immediate problem than to try to find a permanent solution. I know this is common human behaviour, but as a software engineer I am especially interested in this phenomenon.

I remember a funny case of computer trick. I used to work for the Galician government as an IT support person. One day my boss told me “Hey, Cesar, just drop by Angelina’s office and check out a database problem they’ve got. It’s weird. They have five thousand rows in a table with data they don’t know what it means.”

So I drove up there and found Angelina in her office looking at a dBase III (this was loooong ago) screen with a blank stare on her face. She pointed at the screen and said “See, that column there.” It was weird indeed. This column was a 6-character long text field. It was empty in many of the rows, but in some of them contained some letters that made no sense, such as “oza” or “ti” or things like that. I asked about some kind of encoding or symbols or something, but nobody knew. I spent half an hour asking around and then another half hour looking at the damned data trying to infer some meaning. No way.

Luckily enough, when I was about to surrender to the evidence of my failure, this lady walks in. “Do you work here?”, I asked. She says “Yes, I’m new. I started last month.” So I hopelessly ask “You don’t know what these data mean, do you?”. And she smiles and says “Of course I do. But you are doing it wrong. Look.” And then she closes the view on screen (that, I realised later, was only showing the mysterious column and a numeric ID column to its left) and opens a table. With four columns: ID, Name, Surname and DOB. An employees table. “I’ve been entering data since I started, so I know how to use this.” In that moment I suddenly realised. The meaning of the data materialised in my mind as a punch. I couldn’t believe it. “Tell me your name and I’ll show you”, she says. “Cesar Gonzalez”, I say, and she types “Cesar” in the Name field and “Gonzalez” in the Surname field. “Your surname is not too long”, she says, “so it fits in here, but my surname is Casalderrey and it doesn’t fit, see?”, and she types “Casalderre” and the computer beeps. “So I just skip to the box on the right and keep typing”. And she types the “y” in the DOB field. “See? Casalderre-y. You computer guys should know how to make these databases able to fit more characters in a single box!”.

I spent the following hour explaining to her how you should not split a word between two fields. The problem was that she didn’t see anything wrong with that. So I had to come up with some nasty scenarios in which a hack like that would produce some catastrophe of huge consequences. I explained to her that a DOB field should not allow you to type text in it, but then again, that little old database wasn’t a jewel at all.

Before leaving, I asked the new lady why she hadn’t called the IT department to ask us to make the Surname field bigger so she could type whole names in it. She replied “I imagined that it would too difficult, you know, making the field larger. The other day I called asking for an option in the database to switch between languages, you know, you just type G and it changes to Galician, type C and switches back to Spanish, and they said it would be too hard. So I imagined that, if you guys cannot make that, you wouldn’t be able to make this boxes bigger.”

Why is that users’ perception of the magnitude of a change is nothing to do with reality?

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