Support Ops Episode #23

Support Ops Episode #23

My Personal Support Toolbox

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Over the years, I’ve picked out a collection of tools and practices that make it quick and easy to explain how to do things in detail, without resorting to lengthy technical descriptions or spending too much time thinking about how to explain what I’m looking at. Sometimes it’s best to just show instead of tell.

Here’s my list:

VMWare Fusion

Even though I’m a Mac user, I have Windows XP and Windows 7 installed through VMWare Fusion, which runs them inside Mac OS X. This means they’re available when I need to use them to solve a problem that’s specific to those operating systems.

Link: VMWare Fusion

Adium

Adium is an instant message client that connects to my Google Talk, Facebook, and AIM accounts so I’m readily available to friends and family. Usually it’s for conversation, but when my help is needed to fix a problem, I’m there.

Link: Adium

Dropbox + GrabBox

I never use words when a screenshot will get the point across more clearly. GrabBox is a little menu bar item that uploads screenshots to Dropbox for me and copies the link to my clipboard, so I can paste it into an instant message and add a few words for context.

Links: Dropbox, GrabBox

Skype (Screen Sharing)

When I just want to demonstrate how to do something live and I don’t need to record it, I use Skype’s screen sharing tool to show the person on the other end what’s on my screen while I explain it. This also lets me answer questions about what I’m doing. It’s great for situations where I’m not exactly sure what the other person needs to know, but I’m confident I can figure it out with them.

Link: Skype

Quicktime Player (Screen Recording)

When I want to record a short video of how to do something, I usually use Quicktime Player’s built-in screen recording feature. Most people don’t know this feature exists, but you can find it by opening Quicktime Player and clicking on the File menu. When I’m done, I save the video to Dropobx, right-click it and copy the link, and paste it into an email or instant message.

Link: Quicktime Player (Mac OS X version only)

Screenflow

Screenflow is a full-featured screen recording tool for capturing and editing more complex screencasts. It can trim video clips, add call-outs, zoom, and record video from your desktop and webcam at the same time. When I’m done, I’ll either save it to Dropbox and share it from there, or upload it as a private video on YouTube and link to that.

Link: Screenflow

That’s my list. What’s on yours? If you’re using something that I should know about, shoot me an email – I’m always on the lookout for new and better tools.

What Support Can Be

Customer support isn’t just limited to fixing problem after problem as they roll in. It’s a complex ecosystem of problems, opportunities, and solutions that are all interconnected.

If we look for patterns and recurring problems in support requests, we can find parts of the product that could be better. We can help the team understand where small changes could make a feature easier to use or understand.

If we build more efficient (but still personal and friendly) processes for supporting customers, and find good ways to share those processes with with others, we’ll save time by not leaving other team members to reinvent the wheel on their own next time.

If we make an investment in writing great documentation and organizing it well, customers will teach themselves to use our products. When the only thing between the customer and the product is understanding it, support’s job is to educate.

If we listen in on the social channels where our customers share their thoughts and talk about their problems, they won’t feel like we’re not listening or that we don’t care. This isn’t Twitter for Twitter’s sake. It’s going out and meeting them where they are so they don’t have to go it alone.

Support can make the product better, teach new skills to others, market the product’s features, and show empathy for people who are just trying to get through their day. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys helping others, you can imagine ways to make support so much more than just putting out fires.

Six Reliable Thoughts

These have served me well so far. Maybe there’s something interesting here for you too.

  1. Start with nothing. Add only what is necessary.

  2. Write down everything you might care about.

  3. Judge ideas fairly, not quickly.

  4. Most bad ideas are just incomplete ideas. Save them for parts.

  5. Start and end projects liberally. Only continue down a path as long as the destination matters to you.

  6. Don’t solve made up problems. Don’t help people who do.

3D Printing is the new Desktop Publishing

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Learning CAD to do inexpensive, independent 3D printing is going to become the new “learning word processing to do independent desktop publishing,” and it’s going to happen fast.

I think we’re currently in the “crappy dot matrix printer, paper with tear-off holes, monospaced fonts and abysmal clip art” stage of the 3D printing industry.

Or, for people starting to think about the possibilities, for whom experimenting with it isn’t prohibitively expensive anymore, the “well, it isn’t pretty, but I made it myself and I’m proud!” stage, which will eventually become the “wow, there’s demand for this? I see problems I can solve because I’ve been here long enough to notice it — I’m a pro at this!” stage.

Which means a lot more opportunities are about to come over the horizon, for people who can figure out which direction to look in.

Restating the Problems of Computing

Peter Drucker is fond of pointing out that the last buggy whip manufacturers were models of efficiency. So what? What happens if you are efficient at doing the wrong things? That cannot be labeled progress. In fact, one indicator that an industry is in the mature or decline stage of the product/service life cycle is when it is also most likely at the apogee of its theoretical level of efficiency.

The point is this: In industry after industry, the history of economic progress has not been to wring out the last 5 to 10 percent of efficiency, but rather to change the model in order to more effectively create wealth. From Walt Disney and Fred Smith, to Bill Gates and Larry Ellison—these entrepreneurs did not get where they are by focusing on efficiency. All of these entrepreneurs created enormous wealth by delivering more effectively what customers were willing to pay for, not by focusing on efficiency.

– Ronald Baker, Pricing on Purpose

I think the iPad fits this description pretty well. It’s nowhere near as “powerful” as a modern laptop, yet millions of consumers are choosing it over the $1500 machines they would’ve used a decade ago.

There are a lot of constraints built into the iPad, but those constraints haven’t cost us much in terms of what an average user can accomplish with it. Average users don’t buy computers for their gigahertz or gigabytes. They buy computers for their ability to browse the web, check email, and look at Facebook.

None of those things require a whole lot of “power.” They don’t require the ability to have two windows side by side, either, and the iPad does just fine without the ability to do so.

This works out just fine for just about everyone, even a power user like myself, because I know I can only really focus my attention on one thing at a time.

It’s amazing how many “power” problems become non-issues for average users, by simply restating the problems of computing with that simple truth in mind.

In designing that constraint into the iPad, Apple took advantage of the limits of human attention to build an operating system that knows how to use more of the “power” it has on just the thing we’re doing right now.

Growing Old With Computers

Growing up with computers has become the new normal. Now I’m thinking a lot about the next new normal: growing old with them.

I’m going to get old in a world where the computers in my pocket, in my backpack, and in my home all know how to do more and more of the things I ask of them. The less capable my mind and body become, the more I need the help, the more they will be there to pick up the slack for the things that I don’t do so well anymore.

There are a lot of tiny, transactional, everyday activities that I don’t want to have to rely on another person to help me with. Play this song. Dial this phone number. Tell me what this says.

If this is the direction technology is going in, then to me, that represents an opportunity to get recurring frustrations out of the way so that I have more time and energy to spend sharing the gifts I’m excited to give, with the people around me.

Right now, my most powerful technology-enabled superpowers are all about being able to reach anyone, anywhere, to talk about anything. But I think the next superpower we’re going to get, and the one I’ll definitely want when I’m old, is to not need to use that on the hundreds of tiny, recurring challenges that creep up on me.

When Apple introduced Siri, plenty of people hopped up on their well-worn soapboxes to shout to the rest of us that they don’t want some damned computer replacing their human relationships. They’re afraid that technology is making our relationships impersonal. I think they’re dead wrong. But maybe that’s because I’m not in the habit of letting insignificant problems define my relationships.

I don’t believe using a computer to tackle recurring, transactional, everyday problems gets in the way of my personal relationships one bit. If there’s ever a way that I can make a recurring problem disappear by saying a few words to a computer, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve learned how to ask for help when I need it, but I also don’t mind not needing help with things that don’t matter.

As I become more conscious of just how limited my time is, I just want to maximize the amount of energy I’m able to spend chipping away at problems greater than my own. When my body starts to get in the way of my mind and my work, I want whatever superpower will make that a non-issue so I can get on with it.

That’s not impersonal. In fact, getting my own problems out of the way so that I can work on solving yours is about as personal as relationships can get.

Reasonable Perspective

Nerds seem to think it’s become a status symbol of intelligence to whine about how unexciting Apple’s events have become. It’s everywhere, all over Facebook and Twitter and every tech blog imaginable. It’s probably all over the comments on those blogs too, but I don’t have the stomach to scroll that far down. It always feels like I’m scrolling into the bad part of town.

Everyone who expects Apple to keep up their excitement, their secrecy, and especially their momentum, will eventually be disappointed. Many already were by the announcement of the iPhone 4S, even though it’s a great mobile computer in its own right. Is there some reason we can’t judge the design of the damn thing on its own merits, instead of comparing this year’s hype to last year’s hype and making that the basis for our opinion?

Is there a reason, besides our lack of thoughtfulness and appreciation, that we suck at appreciating just how much power we’re packing in our pockets, compared to the featureless lumps devoid of character that we were all carrying ten years ago? All the money in the world back then couldn’t buy the superpowers that we now take for granted every day.

The software gets better. The processors get better. The batteries get better. The cameras get way better. And a wait-and-see attitude toward NFC (and every other fad-technology that attempts to interface with the “real world,” yes I’m looking at you QR codes, you miserable failures) is justified.

Most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked at this point. So, what is there really left to design, that doesn’t amount to diminishing returns?

Maybe the only answer to that is “whatever exciting and secretive thing will cannibalize the smartphone as we know it.” Let’s follow up in a few years on how that all worked out.

We might get minor revisions to the iPhone for a few more years, even if there’s something truly mind-blowing in the works. That pattern is written all over their product history, if you know where to look.

The most well known example is the Apple II, the lifespan of which was extended to fund the development of the far-superior Macintosh. They didn’t stop selling minor revisions to that product just because something better was coming. That’s not the way this business works. There’s always something better coming. That’s not the basis for business decisions, nor purchasing decisions.

The iPhone is a tool. I’m not really convinced that excitement or secrecy are important factors in the tools I use to make and organize things. How much my tool of choice changes year over year is less important than what problems I’m trying to solve with it, or what art I’m trying to make with it, or what event I’m trying to put together with it.

When there are better features, or better tools, I’ll make the most of them. But I’m not even using the tools I’ve got to make the best work I could be making, so why should I get distracted by the lack of excitement about someone else’s work, when I can’t even demand as much exciting work from myself as I’d like?

On Critiques

I think there’s a lot of confusion about art, and about learning to make it. Particularly, there’s a lot of confusion about who the art made in art school is being made for. In that equation, who’s serving who?

Even though critiques are a common practice and a requirement in any art school, the artists I worked alongside never treated them that way. The distinction is in the way the artists regarded their own work, not just the structure they chose to impose upon it.

We looked at our critiques as an opportunity to learn to notice smaller and smaller details that we might exercise finer and finer control over. When my work is critiqued, others are pointing these opportunities out.

When I critique the work of others, I have the opportunity to notice little pieces of their technique and incorporate those into my own work. That’s value I get in exchange for the critique I’ve provided.

In the end, the professors have a responsibility to the institution to report on our performance, but in my experience, art professors are professional artists in their own right who know where to draw that line, so that art is allowed to be art, and grading is treated like a loose formality that says the work of an artist was done there.

And for an artist to do great, meaningful work, they need to be a good steward of their own work. If they choose to have a structure like art school imposed upon it, they have to do their due diligence to ensure that the institution is giving them the results they want.

As far as my work is concerned, I’m a servant, and my art is meant to serve others. Not the instructors that give us our grades, but to society as a whole.

As an artist, I hire instructors (through the school I attend, or privately) the way a startup founder might hire a CEO: not to have a CEO to answer to, but to be equipped with the competency I need for my ideas to serve the greater world.

Sudden Abundance of Friendship

When it suddenly becomes dead simple to get more of something that used to be scarce, my natural tendency is to accumulate more of it than what’s really good for me. It feels safe to have more of what I used to have less of.

The network puts a sudden abundance of “friendship” at my fingertips. Unchecked, I collect more “friends” as time goes on without thinking hard enough about what I’d like those friendships to look like. I never have to lose access to anyone I know. It’s easy to avoid the discomfort that comes with explicitly admitting that a person is no longer a priority in my life.

I have strong feelings about what friendship is to me, and most of those connections don’t feel like friendship to me at all. Having access to a news feed doesn’t even mean I know someone the way they are now or the way I did before. It definitely doesn’t mean I care about them the way a friend should.

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from people I’m not motivated to talk to. We’re not really friends in the way that I define “friend.” They’re not saying things that matter to me. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever see or talk to most of them again in any personal context.

Scrolling past irrelevant posts to find the one from someone I do care about was a constant drip of lost time, and a constant distraction from the people I go out of my way to care about.

Should I maintain those connections and participate in a lie, a known time-suck and a distraction from the people I really do care about? When I say it that way, the right choice for me is obvious.

At one point I had almost a thousand “friends.” Now I have just above 200. Of the 800 people I disconnected from my network, only one noticed. Nothing meaningful in my life changed after those 800 people were disconnected. That says enough about the quality of the relationships I’ve had with them.

I’m still not being completely honest with myself, and I don’t believe I’m still a priority to all of the people I’m still “Facebook friends” with either.

As a means of transmitting ideas, the network is as valid as any other communication tool. It’s not dumbing down our interactions. It’s not making relationships impersonal.

Technology is not making people lazy. We are making us lazy.

Our interactions are dumb and our relationships are impersonal when the way we act reflects the belief that being connected by technology is the same thing as being a friend to someone.

When we share something that makes a friend think, encourage them, show interest in what they’re doing, or participate in a project they’re starting, from one mile away or one hundred, our interactions are brilliant and our relationships are personal.

Technology isn’t one object with one meaning. In the life of an individual, it’s thousands of options with unlimited potential uses. Individuals give meaning to technology by using it to do what they want to do.

I’m reminded of two conversations from my favorite story, between a shipwright and his apprentice:

Franky: Hey, show me the pirate ship blueprints!

Tom: Franky, there’s no such thing as “pirate ship blueprints.” If the sailors hoist a skull, it’s a pirate ship. If they hoist a seagull, it’s a Marine ship. The shipwright’s will is irrelevant.

After Franky’s ships are used to frame them for a crime, he disowns them. Tom the Shipwright takes offense to this:

Franky: Those ships have committed such atrocities… They aren’t mine anymore!

Tom: Not yours anymore, huh? That is something you must never say!

Franky: What’s wrong with saying that? I regret ever making them! If I hadn’t made those ships, no one would’ve gotten hurt!

Tom: The act of constructing a ship is neither good nor evil! I don’t care what kind of ships you’re going to make. But, even if those ships are used to hurt people or destroy the world, their creator must love them unconditionally! He must never doubt them! Don’t blame your ships!

I think that frames technology in its human-determined context: In the same way that good and evil describe the intentions of the people on a ship and not the ship itself, impersonal and lazy indicate one way that people use technology.

New technology has never forced laziness upon us. We’ve only made it an excuse for our own bad behavior. Technology has only ever done the things we’ve told it to do.

Understanding that means I can tell it to do much more powerful things.