Habits, inertia and apathy

Every so often I hear someone else’s horror story and it takes me back …

I enjoyed reading Trevor Pott’s “Breaking the Habit” at The Register, where he offered some excellent reflections on end-user’s (and IT”s) habits, inertia and apathy. Over a weekend, Pott performed a wholesale upgrade of the desktop experience for his user base, from Windows XP, Office 2003, Communicator 2005 and Internet Explorer to Windows 7, Office 2010, Communicator 2007 R2 and Firefox.

He says his end-users had been given months of advanced notice and provided with documented instructions, but years of patterns of behavior had subconsciously embedded the existing workflow into their consciousness. He sites some important lessons learned to which I concur.

No matter how cynical and jaded you may be, you will underestimate user apathy.  Changes to the user experience bewilder and upset them…

A remarkable thing happens when the sysadmins take the time to call each user individually, demonstrate the possible settings changes and apply the individual preferences of the user. With one phone call, the antipathy directed at IT is nearly eliminated. Users are still left with an interface and applications to which they are not yet habituated, but they feel their complaints have been heard.

I still remember my first major upgrade LAN upgrade – Netware 2.x with Dos clients to Netware 3.x with Windows 3.x clients in a high profile department in a large bank. The cutover was an all-nighter, but from a technical perspective, it was sound. From a customer sat perspective, I am glad I got out of their with my life! (See my page in Technology Management). But what great lessons learned! I think it is tough to be successful in IT management without having gone through a few of those tough, massive end-user upgrades.

People get used to the status quo. For most end-users, computers, operating systems, and applications are merely a tool to do their job. Once they learn an interface to those tools, even a bad one, change is going to be very painful. The closer the customers are to the technology, the more work the IT manager has to do to prepare them for a change. Their use of desktops, LANs, and oft-used applications do indeed become habit-forming and create a sense of inertia. If the IT manager monkeys with that, expect them to line up outside your door with pitchforks and torches.