There is no Just

A friend of mine wanted to visit a website where I had set up an account for her months prior. This sounds simple so far, but my friend is visually impaired, so she finds it very difficult to do some things on a computer, like visit a website she has never been to before.

There are three steps to visiting this website:

Step 1. enter the address in the address bar

Step 2. enter the username in the username field

Step 3. enter the password in the password field

So we arranged a call by Skype and I was doing my best to offer help. “Just go to the address bar and type in the address. Do you know where the address bar is?” She said, “Yes.” I waited for a while for her to enter the domain name, which was 15 characters long.

She had typed the domain name wrong, and was confused about what to do next. “Just tell me what you see,” I said. I could tell from her description that she was at the wrong place.

“It sounds like you typed the address wrong,” I said. “Just delete the address and try again.”

It took quite a while for her to respond, because I suspect that she’s the kind of person who, when it’s necessary to delete a long string of text, puts the cursor at the end of the text and keeps pressing ‘delete’ over and over again until all of the text is gone.

“Just tell me what you see,” I said. Again she had typed the address wrong.

“Just try again”, I reassured her.

This time she finally made it to the right site. She is familiar with entering usernames and passwords, so she was able to enter her username without a problem despite the fact that the website likes to use lots of small fonts low-contrast color combinations, like gray on white. Then there was a long pause.

“I don’t know my password,” she said. “OK, we’ll just have to reset it,” I said. “Just click on ‘Forgot Password?’ and they’ll mail you a new one.”

So now she had the check her email. “That’s not a problem,” I said, “Just go to your webmail, enter your webmail username and webmail password.”

We were 40 minutes into the call and now we were back on Step 1, just for webmail rather than the site we were trying to access.

By now she was tired and anxious, so we agreed to stop where we were and save the problem of reading the password reset email for another day.

But it occurred to me a day or so after we spoke how many times in my instructions I had used the word “just”. “Just go to the website…”, “Just click on the link…”, “we’ll just have to reset the password”.

I imagined myself traveling with a business colleague to a very poor country and arriving at a run-down hotel late at night. Wearily we dragged ourselves and our suitcases down a poorly lit hallway and opened the door to our room to see only the pitch-black space in front of us.

“Just turn on the light,” my colleague said.

I guess the lesson is: When doing something you’ve never done before (something you’ve done only rarely) There Is No Just. Every step of every problem is itself another problem. I don’t know where the light switch is or even if there is one. If I find one, I don’t necessarily know how to switch it to ‘on’. And if I am able to flip the switch to what I think is ‘on’ and the light doesn’t come on, I don’t know if the problem is the switch, the bulb, the wiring, or me. The use of ‘just’ implies the problem is easy to solve – and if the problem was easy to solve, wouldn’t I have simply turned the light on already?

At no point during my conversation with my friend had either of us gotten upset or raised our voices at the other. We were trying to do something which was very familiar for one person, but very unfamiliar for the other. But even so, in retrospect I see how she could have easily misinterpreted my use of “just” as being demeaning of her, rather than simply trying to make the task sound achievable.

The entire reason we had arranged a call in the first place was that the problem was not easy for her to solve. And when there is a problem, there is no just.

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