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I don’t know why people insist on sharing information using MS-Word documents. I’m not talking about documents where you need to collaborate on or edit or whatever else. No, this is about documents which contain information that is only for viewing.

For example, someone will send you an email with directions to their place, where the directions will be typed into a Word document and sent as an attachment to the email. That’ll need you to download the Word document, open it up in Word (or OpenOffice) and then read the information. Too much work. Here’s a tip: just type the directions in the body of the email and if there’s a map (image) to be attached, attach that to the email instead of pasting it into a Word document.

I’ve got nothing against Word; I’ve used it many times and will continue to use it. It just annoys me that people assume that everyone has Word installed on their computer. No, everyone doesn’t because it costs a bit if you want a licensed copy, not a pirated one.

If the information must be sent in a document form, especially stuff that doesn’t need formatting, plain text is a thing of beauty. Text files can be easily viewed on most operating systems and they’re so light, it’s like fat-free documents or something.

If you need to include formatting and / or graphics or need some sort of copy-protection (rolls eyes), you can use PDF. At least the viewer’s free and you can also print / convert PDFs for free. Also, you tend to find a PDF reader already installed on most computers now. It’s not the best format for the web (see my previous rant) but it’s better than a Word doc.

And, there’s always the option of using HTML (or derivatives thereof) when you’re sharing information on the web.

To sum up, Word is good for a lot of things — sharing information isn’t one of them.

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A few months ago I was conducting a series of training sessions. The participants were persons who had just completed their education and were being trained for their first job. You’d think that they would have been enthusiastic as hell but you’d be wrong.

While I enjoyed the process of the training, interacting with the participants was like hitting my head against a wall. The thing was that I was not the only trainer to notice that about the participants.

Contrast that with another set of training sessions that I conducted two years ago. The participants were buzzing with energy, they were enthusiastic, they genuinely wanted to learn, and I had a blast training them. They’d stay late if needed and they’d even come in early to try out things that they’d learnt. From what I’ve heard, they’ve been doing pretty well for themselves.

I’m not making the point that people who are excitable or enthusiastic in training sessions are the ones who benefit the most. That’s not necessarily true–sometimes introverted people may not want to dive into discussions, etc. But, I feel that people who are really interested in learning, who are passionate about what they’re learning, they’re the ones that will get the most from training sessions. And, it’s a pretty good bet that they’ll do well at work too because they know that hard work is needed.

Coming back to the first set of participants: They never realized how lucky they were. Their company was willing to pay an external trainer money to train them, it was willing to conduct internal training sessions, and it was giving them a chance to learn while getting paid for four weeks. How many people get a chance like that?

If they were passionate, I have no doubt that they’d be doing well now. But, since they weren’t I’m not so sure. And that has nothing to do with how smart they were or how talented–that stuff can only take you so far.

My Internet Service Provider (ISP), Sify if you must know, doesn’t like me. I’m sure it’s not personal but that’s the message I get when they hang up on me, after making me enter a bunch of options and a ten-digit mobile number. It’s not a one-off incident either: this has happened to me more often than I have been connected to a customer rep. I’m not kidding.

I’ve spoken to Sify’s customer reps when I did get through but that doesn’t seem to have any effect. I’ve even written to the head of the customer service division at Sify, but apparently they’re too busy to respond to me either. And this seems to be a problem that they are aware of because one rep told me that “because of high call volumes, you may have problems”. He also said that if I was disconnected that Sify would recontact me but they never have. Now, Sify is part of the Satyam group which has been in the news for the wrong reasons. So, irritating customers is not the best idea for their business.

I cannot understand why Sify refuses to get it. Search for “Sify broadband” on Google and you’ll see the number of complaints that people have. Yes, leaving this ISP is an option but sometimes there are reasons why you have to stick with a provider (coverage, for example).

And, the funny part is that if I want to get a new broadband connection, Sify will put me in touch with a customer rep easily. No need to enter a phone number or anything. For existing customers, they make you jump through hoops. Here are the things you have to do, if you are an existing customer.

  1. Dial Sify’s call centre number.
  2. Listen to recorded message and press 1 for English
  3. Listen to another recorded message and press 2 for “existing customers…” (New connection customers stop here!)
  4. Listen to another recorded message and press 1 or 2 depending on whether your query is “non-technical or technical”. (I’ve written about this in another post)
  5. Listen to another recorded message and then enter 0 followed by a ten-digit mobile number.
  6. Pray that you’re connected to a customer rep and not disconnected.

What do you do in such a situation? I’ll be switching to a new ISP soon, but I wonder about the many people who will still be customers of Sify. Some may not be able to move. What do they do? My recommendation is to complain to the call centre people, to write emails or letters to Sify, to write to newspapers, share experiences on forums (like MouthShut.com) or blogs, or even contact the consumer courts (if you’re really ticked off). If enough people complain, companies will be forced to take notice.

That you have to do so much to get yourself heard makes me sad. Why don’t companies make great customer service their priority? Not lip service, not useless automation, not advertising, just great customer service.

Not crappy customer service, which we are all familiar with, but great customer service. That would really be something.

When I call my Internet provider, sometimes they’ll decide to let me know that there’s “free shipping on all products for 1600 locations. For details, log on to Sify.com.”

My telecom service provider, which was taken over by another company a few months ago, decides to let me know that their spokesperson is the son of a famous actor and that the company is here to serve me… blah, blah.

Most of the time, when I’m calling a customer service line, I’m not calling to chat about the weather. It’s usually a problem that I want solved and like most impatient customers, I want it solved yesterday. Essentially, all I’m looking for is to speak to a customer service rep and get my problem fixed.

So, who’s the brilliant guy that came up with the scheme to insert marketing messages in the phone call? And, these messages are not when I’m on hold, (Did you know that you can browse interesting links over on the right hand side of this blog? See?) but typically at the beginning of the phone call.

Sometimes I get the impression that these ideas are hatched at meetings where an overbearing boss suggests the idea and everyone agrees because they’re too scared to tell the guy that it’s not such a bright idea.

Or, it’s just that companies don’t think like customers or act like customers. A lot of the problems with phone customer service and IVR systems can be solved if companies actually used their own systems. You know call in, speak to someone, that sort of thing. I know it’s a revolutionary idea but companies ought to try it sometime.

A few days ago I noticed that my laptop was booting up much slower than before, at least 20 seconds slower I would say. I checked if there were any programs being automatically started by Windows that might’ve slowed the computer down. Nope. No viruses on the computer either.

I then went into the BIOS setup and checked if there was some change in configuration. Then, it hit me. The bootup sequence checked the CD ROM drive as well and, in my infinite wisdom, I’d forgotten that I’d left a CD in the drive by mistake. I took it out and the laptop’s boot up speed was back to normal.

A little while earlier, I was trying to plug in my laptop into a power strip but the power wasn’t going through to my laptop. I checked the connections but everything was fine. Further checking made me realize that I’d inserted a similar looking but completely different plug into the socket. A smile and a correction later, I’m back on power.

These two examples should not be construed as reasons for my declining mental faculties. (You may make a case for that under different circumstances but that’s a whole other can of worms.) My reason for writing about these two incidents is that we sometimes tend look for complicated solutions / explanations without checking for the simplest ones.

The simplest explanations are not always the solution to a problem, but they are surprisingly the solution a great deal more often than you think*. (All I have to go on here is my experience — I don’t have any empirical studies to back this up.)

So, the next time you face a problem, resist the urge to panic and hyperventilate and check the obvious, simple explanations. Chances are you may figure out a solution without too much panicking. If the simple solution route doesn’t work, you can always check for the complicated ones later and panic to your heart’s content.

Just to reiterate: I am not saying that the simplest solution is always the correct one. I am saying that you should consider the possibility that it might be and rule it out before investigating further.

* – This is probably the reason why customer service people will ask you things like, “Is the power switch on?”

P.S.: Occam’s Razor is a term that’s you hear when people talk about looking for simple solutions.

I’m a right-clicker. There, I said it. I like to right-click on links and open them in different tabs or windows in my browser, without leaving the page that I am currently browsing. For example, let’s say I’m reading something and want to open a link without interrupting my reading: right-click.

On some web pages though, this isn’t straight-forward because of the J in AJAX — JavaScript. When you right-click on a link that is using JavaScript, you’ll end up with a blank page with the URL of the page looking something like javascript: ….

One workaround for this is that you hover over a link and look in the browser’s status bar to see if the link is an http one or a JavaScript one. That’s tedious because, if you’re like me, you won’t remember to do this every single time you click a link.

Another workaround is that you can (regular) click a link and then use the browser’s Back button, which in some cases won’t work because a designer will decide to redirect you back to the same page.

Both workarounds aren’t optimal. So, what is a poor user to do? Maybe ask designers of web pages to let users know whether a specific link can be right-clicked or not. Different colour possibly? Or when a user hovers over a link, indicate that the link cannot be right-clicked. Just do something, anything.

With more websites going “Web 2.0”, you do encounter a lot more JavaScript than before, so I don’t think this problem is going to go away. What do you think should be done?

There is no doubting that drop-down boxes are useful. However, when drop-down boxes provide only a single option, (and this can happen for different reasons) the need to select that option seems cumbersome. By definition, there should be at least two options when you pull-down a drop-down box. So, when a user is faced with a single option, it does seem pointless to ask the user to “select” that option. There is nothing to select.

There is a simple solution: automate the selection when the drop-down box has only one option. I don’t know how hard it would be to program but I can’t imagine that counting the number of options available in a drop-down and then doing a certain action if there’s only one option would be difficult. (Smart developer-person correct me if I am wrong.)

I’m writing about this because I’ve come across single option drop-down boxes a few times recently. I understand that this “state” (single option) can happen because of a particular choice made previously (in the user interface) or a combination of choices. What I’m hoping for is that someone will obviate the need for that extra pull-down and selection, essentially two actions.

What do you think: am I asking for too much?