It’s not all technological smiles at the Inspiration Factory today. Although I was waxing lyrical about virtual assistants a couple of posts ago, today I’ve been failing to negotiate (read: swearing) at our printers. By that I mean printing machines, obviously. I would never swear at real people.

We generate a lot of high-quality printed materials at the office. Handouts for seminars and workshops, workbooks and guides for various training programmes, Lumina Spark portraits by the truckload. We have some top end printers and it’s quite nice to produce all your materials in-house. It means you can tweak things or correct mistakes without wasting too much time, and there’s something very satisfying about generating quality materials yourself.

Except when we have printer trouble, of course. Then it doesn’t go so smoothly. Poor Stevie has been all around town trying to sort things out. Luckily there are always other options, and everything is going to get done. But it can be frustrating when a system that was working well – and that you’ve therefore come to rely on – breaks down entirely.
I said in jest earlier on that I had failed to negotiate with the printer. I would have liked to give it a try, though. One of the most annoying aspects of technology is the impersonal nature of dealing with problems. If something breaks down you can’t reason with it or negotiate. It’s even more frustrating when it involves a software problem or something similar. Lots of non-techie people are almost reduced to tears by programmes / websites / design packages refusing to work how you want, with seemingly no indication as to why.

A constant example is the Microsoft Office package, because Microsoft feel compelled to change things with every release. They do this to make it easier and more streamlined to use – of this I have no doubt – but because it takes a few years for each new version to be released most people have learned and ingrained the method of using the previous version. You upgrade Microsoft Word from 2007 to 2010 and suddenly all the buttons have migrated and none of the menus make sense any more. You can’t politely ask Word to go back to the old version – which worked perfectly well for you – so you have to start learning again.

Our printer probably has a mechanical problem, but I have no idea what it might be. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could talk to electronics in the same way you can talk to people? If your computer starts doing something bizarre, you could just ask it nicely to… stop. If there’s a problem you don’t understand you could just ask. As search and help functions get better we come a little closer to this… but just a little.

What’s interesting to me is how infrequently people use the opportunity to talk to people in real life, despite how frustrating they find technology. Often people – especially when they are at work – will allow a situation to develop into a problem before they talk to someone about changing things. We’ve been discussing email a lot recently and one of the things I’ve noticed when we’ve been training in-house is that lots of people use email as their primary mode of communication with people they work with in the same office. They send short, informal but professional messages all day long, rather than getting up and talking to someone they sit less than 30ft away from.

Email is limited as a communication form simply because we aren’t evolved to use it. Everything about our brains is developed to deal with face-to-face talking. Pitch, tone, body-language, expression; human communication is feast of audio-visual data. Stripping it down to the bare bones can be confusing and frustrating – a little like talking to a computer. It’s almost always more practical to talk to a person rather than send them an email.

It’s puzzling that –even though we have various examples of how frustrating it can be to be blocked by something that won’t talk back – we still persist in limiting our communication options. I think improving communication skills is important. I think what’s as important is reminding people that they can communicate in the first place.