February 1, 2004 spout

On Behalf of Software Engineers, I’m Sorry

Sunday, February 1st, 2004

I just got off the phone with my step-mother and boy are my arms tired. She way trying to do a mail merge. I told her about a month ago put data into an Excel spreadsheet in a data-like format (and I sent her an example spreadsheet to start from). Then, after entering the data into her spreadsheet, I recommended to her that she choose Mail Merge from the Tools menu in Word and she’d be home free.

Of course, she wasn’t. For example, after choosing her Excel spreadsheet, she was asked if she wanted to use first name, Sheet1$, Sheet2$ or Sheet3$ as her data. Having zero idea what SheetN$ was, she chose something vaguely human-sounding, which was exactly what she didn’t want, then was frustrated when her data didn’t come up. Later, after going away to buy hundreds of dollars worth of books (none of them telling her how to do Mail Merge using words that she could understand, btw), she opened up her document and was presented with a dialog box asking whether it was OK to run an SQL statement. What’s SQL?” she asked. Nothing that any normal human should ever have to see,” I replied, growing more embarrassed about the state of the output of my industry by the minute.

Later, when we got the data working with the merge (Remote Assistance, even over a slow phone line to Fargo, ND, works *very* well, once I figured out how to take control of her computer [answer: Take Control in the upper left]), she turned her attention to reformatting her letter. For example, she’d pasted some text from the web, which, by default, left this weird web formatting instead of making it look like the rest of her letter, so the styles were very different. Luckily, selecting the text and turning off the bold was enough, otherwise I’d have either had to reformat her entire letter or talk her through doing it. And how did I tell her to turn off the bold? By selecting the text and pressing Ctrl+B? Why did I tell her that? Because Word had taken the Bold toolbar icon off the toolbar and I couldn’t imagine describing to her what the little chevron was for so that she could get it back.

I’ve listed only a small percentage of issues I worked through with her, but lest you think otherwise, my step-mom is no idiot. She’s a nurse anesthetist, so has to keep tons of details in her head all day long or people die. Also, she’s trained her dogs to win first place obstacle courses in competitions around the country, one of whom was said to be untrainable. But when it came to Mail Merge, she worked for three weekends straight before giving up and calling me. It’s clear to me that for anything but the simplest of tasks that computers are not even close to ready for normal humans. On behalf of the software engineers everywhere, I’d like to apologize to Charlene (my step-mom) and the rest of the normal humans everything who are merely trying to make computers actually work. Hopefully Longhorn will fix this problem, but until then, I recommended that she return her computer to the manufacturer and get herself a Nintendo. After working through this with her for over an hour, I was only half kidding.