Sunday, March 08, 2009

Anatomy of a "Aha!" moment

Step 1: Routine
I'm doing something routine, checking my office email from home through the webmail application. I'm starting to draft a response to a message, I'm thinking, editing, thinking, and by the time I'm ready to send, the connection has timed out and I lost my message. It's not even saved as a draft.

Step 2: Recurring, yet not constant error
This is a recurring "error". It's entirely my mistake. It doesn't happen every time I deal with my office email from home but regularly enough to be an annoyance. It has happened before and I don't seem to learn anything from it. All I would need to do is remember to either save the message regularly (automated saving would be better!) or draft it outside the browser and cut-and-paste it when I'm ready to hit "send". The solution appears simple. Why am I not able to implement it?

Step 3: What is going on?
Do we really learn something from our mistakes only when the annoyance or consequences reach a certain threshold? If I've recognized that I need to do something about it and I know what the solution is, why am I not able to implement the solution?

Part of the answer is that when I start answering an email, I don't recognize the fact that it might take me a while to be ready to send. I underestimate the time it will take to answer. In truth, when I start responding to an email, my mind is entirely focused on the answer, not the mechanics and limitations of my webmail application. [Thankfully, this blog tool automatically saves my drafts and has a big "SAVE NOW" button just below what I am typing, just in case.]

The webmail application is particularly annoying because it doesn't tell you that you've lost the connection. It lets you think you're still connected. It lets you write a nice long message and you don't realize you've lost it until you try to send it. Can you see smoke coming out of my ears?

Step 4: What is really going on?
I'm staring at the login screen again and by then I know I've lost my message. Interestingly, the login screen that appears after you've been logged out as a result of a connection timeout isn't the same as the login screen I routinely start from, the one that I have bookmarked for easy access. So, what's the harm in reading the fine print? I might actually figure something out, right!

Step 5: Fine Print
Some background first: There are four options on the login screen (private vs. public computer; and full vs. light version of the webmail application). I'm working on my private computer at home and I have a good connection so I don't need to select the "light" version. The login screen explains that the light version is "sometimes" faster if you have a slow connection.

Here's the fine print: You need Internet Explorer 6 or higher to use the full version of the webmail application. Aha! I use Firefox. What does that mean??????? It means that even though I'm selecting the "full" version, I'm automatically transferred to the "light" version... and since I've never experienced the "full" version, I never noticed. The "light" version seems to time out after 15 minutes (even when I'm on a private computer setting which, according to the instructions, should give me 24 hours without being automatically logged out).

Step 6: What else is wrong?
It took me too long to get to this Aha! moment. How could the error have been avoided in the first place or what might have made it easier for me to catch it sooner?
  • In hindsight, I could have mentioned the problem to a colleague to get some insights into what might be wrong. However, since I was assuming the problem was my inability to remember to save, there was no obvious need to mention it to a colleague.
  • I could have contacted IT support, but again, I was assuming the problem was with me, not with the system or how I was using it.
  • ALL login screens should have the same fine print. It's possible that I would have noticed the "IE" fine print sooner if it had been on my routine login screen and not just on the login screen I was rerouted to after I timed out.
I might send this to the IT support folks.... they might find it useful as a case study in user stupidity. I'm not wondering if this is indeed the full explanation or if I'm still missing half of it.