Out, Out, You Demons of Stupidity!

Did you ever read Rory Blyth's classic blog post Excel As A Database, in which some business types (from the marketing dept, naturally), find the most convoluted way possible to use the technology at their disposal to achieve a given task?  If not, you really should. It is, as I said, a classic, having even been reproduced in The Best Software Writing I, a 2005 book edited by Joel Spolsky. Why don't you go read it now, then come back here?  Go on, we'll wait...

Back so soon?  It's funny, huh?  And you're probably thinking "Boy, I'm glad I don't work in that department!"  But the scary thing is, I see that kind of behaviour all the time. Somehow, intelligent people who really should know better manage to use the IT tools on their desktop to achieve tasks in a really round-the-houses kind of way which leaves me wondering why these people didn't, at some stage of the process, think to themselves "Gee, it seems like there should be an easier way to do this!".

You want examples?  OK:

  • I recently received a "news" alert email sent to the entire company, consisting of a hyperlink to a networked Word document. That doc described in English where on an intranet to find a hyperlink to a PDF document which may be of interest (but inevitably, wasn't). What is this, Treasure Hunt? GodTower?  That's two minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. If you have something to say, say it, don't make me jump through hoops to find the mesage!
  • A user of one of our applications recently experienced an error message on screen (admittedly this should have been emailed to ourselves or logged), so we asked for a copy of the message. Anticipating an email with the text copied-and-pasted, they actually opted to print the screen and fax it over - reaching a colleague at a different building who was forced to scan it and email it to us.
  • My friend and colleague John (yes, he of John's Background Switcher fame!) was recently requested to include some boilerplate text within one of the outputs of an application. Rather than providing him with the actual text, he was instead sent a PDF containing a JPEG image of a scanned version of a printed copy of the text. No, really - you couldn't make this stuff up! He was then forced to rekey the text - a worthy use of a developer's time I'm sure you'll agree.
  • And finally, and one of my personal favourites - I was observing one of our dear users accessing our flagship web-based application when I realised that he was unaware of the concept of either bookmarks ("favourites"), or indeed how to enter a (three-character internal DNS alias) URL in the address bar. So, every time he wanted to access the site (which was several times a day), he opened an archived email from several years previous in which a colleague had sent him the application URL, and clicked on that link.

Please, world, I'm begging you. If ever you find yourself thinking "gosh, this is convoluted" or "if only there was an easier way..." then, in all likelihood, there is indeed an easier way, and you're making this far more complicated than they need be. So, do yourself a favour and ask the guy/gal next to you if they know a better way, or even swallow your pride and ask your IS Helpdesk / local IT wonk / teenaged child for some hints. You'll probably find that you save yourself a lot of time and hassle.