Don’t Ignore User Tech Anxiety

If you don’t address the underlying concerns users may have with tech in general, no tech fix will be complete.

I came of age with the first wave of personal computers in the early 80’s, and that shapes how I approach IT in the workplace, and not in a positive way. In my elementary school, there was a personal computer per wing of the school. The students didn’t know how to make it work, the teachers didn’t really know how to make it work, and it stayed out in the hall like a child who disrupted the class.

My family were early adopters of personal computers, rushing out to buy a VIC-20 shortly after it hit the market in 1980. If the modern slogan of IT could be “move fast and break things,” then the motto of working with these early computers could be summed up as “move slow because everything might break”. You had to code almost everything yourself, and one error would throw everything off; also, there was very little memory available. It was so easy to lose your life’s work on these machines.

For some reason, my father, a natural tinkerer and a tech geek, once rigged the computer to go on and off with the den’s light switch. He thought he was very clever. Then, one day, he left the room and my mom turned off the light, erasing a full afternoon’s work. He howled, as if in pain, when he saw what had happened.

Scenes like this can leave a mark. The way I and my daughter, a tech native, approach tech is completely different. We have the same phone and use it roughly for the same things. However, when she sees something she doesn’t like about her user experience, she searches for a way to change it right away. When confronted with the same problem, I tend to keep the status quo out of fear I will only make things worse. Luckily, she goads me to learn.

Obviously, everyone’s relationship with tech is different. My brother, three years older than I, grew up with the same tech tools, and he went on to be a computer scientist. However, it is not a stretch to say that people my age or older are probably more likely to be cautious with tech than their younger counterparts. And even in younger generations of the workforce, there are going to be those who have a complicated, if not fraught, relationship with tech.

In my professional life, I’ve had both good and bad relationships with the various IT service teams. Early on, I was fortunate to be able to work in a small publishing house with an IT guy named Sean, who took a personalized approach to helping me with IT. He understood early on that I was afraid of new things because I thought I would somehow break them, and he helped me understand the hardiness of the software and hardware. More importantly, he liked to point out the shortcomings of tech design, as if to say it was never completely the user’s fault when something goes wrong.

I’ve had a less successful relationship with larger, remote IT departments, when I’ve worked with IT teams who are further removed from the day-to-day work process of my team. I come to them for help less often, and they understand less about what my tech needs are. Worse, I’ve worked with some IT staff who assume user error for anything that goes wrong, and I then had to prove them wrong. Because of this type of relationship, I am sure there were problems that went unreported and opportunities that were missed in those workplaces.

Having someone like Sean in the room is a luxury few can afford, of course. An organization’s structure and size will dictate how far removed the IT department is from the day-to-day processes. However, I would argue that there is intrinsic value in delivering a personalized experience to staff, or at least to staff who may have anxiety about tech.

Here are a few suggestions for how IT service can be in the best position to help the tech-anxious, no matter the size of your organization:

  • As part of the onboarding process, each new hire should take a survey to gauge their comfort levels with the various tech used at an organization’s workplace, and tech in general.
  • When possible, try and pair tech folks with certain teams and keep them there, so a relationship can develop.
  • If this is not possible, assign particularly patient IT service team members to handle a few “frequent fliers” who frequently ask for help.
  • In every service call that isn’t straight forward, allow space to discuss the possible anxieties that may be interfering with the user’s experience.

The above suggestions may require upfront additional expenses for enhanced IT service, but I would argue that it would result in an enhanced user experience, and fewer IT service tickets down the road.

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