“Hello, this is tech support. You opened a trouble ticket stating that you had an error message and needed some assistance. Can you elaborate?”
“Yes, it’s broken!”
“What’s broken? Can you tell me what the error message said?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What program were you working in?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Is everything working now?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
Does this exchange sound familiar to you? If you’ve spent any time in I.T., then it should. Every day, thousands of I.T. support professionals have to field service calls from users who are extremely intelligent in all other areas of their life, but when sitting in front of a computer they can’t seem to grok the magic screen in front of them. These are people who spend hours a day in front of a keyboard, who have as one of the primary tools of their job one of those mystical computers that only the “gurus” can seem to figure out.
Why are otherwise intelligent people so routinely stymied by technology?
Years ago, during my martial arts days, I was introduced to something called the “OODA Loop”. The OODA Loop is a concept that tries to define our decision-making process. It was first developed by U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd and has since been applied to military strategy, business management, legal arguments, and many other areas. My martial arts instructor used the concept to demonstrate ways to distract an opponent and then to capitalize on that distraction. He also taught ways to recognize when distractions were being used against the student so that they could be effectively nullified.
OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action. It’s a feedback loop that allows us to quickly and automatically process information and act on it. All day, every day, we are absorbing stimuli, “tuning” our brains to deal with it, making decisions about how to process it, and then executing those decisions to resolve it. This may happen hundreds or even thousands of times per day without our awareness.
Consider, for example, a user in your Accounting department. We’ll call her Alice. During the course of a normal day, Alice works on four or five tasks. These are the same tasks she worked on yesterday and they’re the same tasks she’ll work on tomorrow. She knows how to do them. The tasks (other than normal, routine variation), don’t really change. This is her OODA loop for these tasks. Today, however, her accounting software crashes. She’s in the middle of Orientation/Decision. Her OODA loop has just been broken by something entirely alien to her and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. She cannot reach the Action phase of her loop. She is unskilled at resetting her loop and so she locks up with indecision. It doesn’t even occur to her to read the error message before simply calling I.T. support for help.
My Sensei carries with him a dummy wallet loaded with scraps of paper. If (or when) he gets mugged, he will start to hand over this wallet but “accidentally” drop it before the mugger can take it. As the mugger is distracted and focused on the wallet and blowing scraps of paper, he can use the opportunity to defend himself with devastating effect. By introducing an unexpected variable into the mugger’s plan, he breaks the mugger’s OODA loop and uses the resulting confusion to great advantage.
As seasoned veterans of the trenches, we rarely have the luxury of working on the same tasks day after day. Every day brings with it fresh challenges and new problems to solve. Something in our brains predisposes us to think non-linearly. If you were to begin describing a problem to me (any problem, computer-related or not), my brain has already branched down a dozen different solution possibility paths before you’ve even finished your first sentence (I’m told that it’s visible on my face because my eyes unfocus while I work on the problem). I already have five follow-up questions in hand as I wait for you to finish describing the problem. Troubleshooters, be they I.T. staffers or auto repairmen, by nature have an OODA loop that is, generally, difficult to disrupt. We are so accustomed to changing gears in an instant that we can handle the occasional monkey wrench thrown into the works. Sometimes literally.
I sometimes make a game out of breaking others’ OODA loops for my own entertainment. At a restaurant, a co-worker will order, say, a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake. I’ll say “I’ll have the exact same thing, but I’d like to substitute everything on it for a club sandwich, chips, and an iced tea.” Because I gave an unexpected response, almost invariably the reaction from the server is a confused “What?”. I give myself a quiet, smug little smile and then help the server to reset her Loop by simply repeating my order without the little joke.
One of the most important skills that we must develop in I.T. is what my boss calls “compassion for those who aren’t as skilled as you”. What I think he really means is that we must have an intuitive understanding and appreciation for how our users think. We have to know that they have an easily-broken Loop and to make appropriate accommodations. It’s not that our users are not as skilled as we or as intelligent as we, it’s that their brains don’t work in the same way that ours do. In the same way that I cannot sculpt a work of art or see the flowing mathematical beauty and symmetry of a balanced set of accounting books, our users cannot hold in their minds the endlessly branching probabilities when diagnosing a technical problem. It’s not a failure on their part, it’s simply a difference in the way in which their brains are wired. It’s like a blind spot over which they have no control.
That’s not to say that we can’t be disrupted ourselves, of course. We have our own blind spots that are easy enough to exploit by a skilled opponent who knows what he’s doing. Sometimes even disrupted unintentionally. As I was writing this post, for example, my wife stepped in to ask me a question and I lost about a third of it that was in my head but hadn’t been put to paper yet. She broke my OODA loop and it took me awhile to reform my thoughts. A rather fitting event, I thought, and a sharp reminder of the fragility of our attention.