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Every sysadmin needs to interact with other people - clients, users, developers, management etc. How to communicate with users who we know would be unable to understand the answer properly? Ignore them? Answer anyway? Educate?


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closed as not constructive by John Gardeniers, Chris S, l0c0b0x, jscott, GregD Dec 29 '10 at 3:46

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Don't talk down to them. Explain the communication in terms that will help them understand. Cooperative users are much better to deal with than ones you've alienated or ticked off. – Mitch Dec 28 '10 at 23:24
It takes a lot of patience, practice, patience, experience, oh and did I mention patience. Ignoring them however is not cool. Personally, I find analogies work very well. – Ben Pilbrow Dec 28 '10 at 23:25
depends on what your being paid to do! – tony roth Dec 28 '10 at 23:26
Step 1: Don't think of them as 'incompetent', be more positive in your attitude to your customers. – Linker3000 Dec 29 '10 at 0:15
As a first step I suggest to learn to communicate without insults. Your use of the work "incompetent", without qualifying it tells me you need to develop some people skills. – John Gardeniers Dec 29 '10 at 1:52

10 Answers 10

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Don't ignore them. Answer their questions and try to educate them the best you can. Most end-users know that they have no clue about technology, except which end the USB drive goes into the computer. But they definately don't want to feel ignored or looked down on because they don't know as much as you do.

Most users will appreciate if you take the time to try to explain the situation to them. But don't get overly technical. Keep your words small and try not to use initialisms like DHCP or DNS or TCP/IP. They don't know what it is, and really couldn't care. But if you tell them that the computer wasn't working because it couldn't communicate correctly on the network, that should be fine for them.

And keep the geeking-out in front of them to a minimum. I know you want to celebrate the 1.5 hour troubleshooting session that had you upside down in a crawlspace tracing wires and whatnot, but tell it to your IT co-workers, not the end users.

Just my $.02, based on my experience. YMMV


I take issue with the idea that users are inherently incompetent. I believe the word you are actually looking for is ignorant. They don't know any better and frankly why should they? It's your job to do the technical knowing. Expecting end-users to be technically competent is like expecting drivers to have a PHDs or Master's worth of mechanical engineering knowledge about their car.

I find this works pretty well for me.

  • Ask them to tell you what the problem is they are having AND then listen to their whole explanation; even if you already know the answer or what they are saying isn't technically correct.
  • Use simple analogies.
  • Avoid using acronyms, or IT-specific terminology
  • Explain the situation in a brief, non-nontechnical manner focusing on the big picture.
  • Ask if they have any more questions or they want the issue and solution explained in more detail.
  • Patience!

Remember, it's not your network. It's their network. You are here because they are here. I think if you take the long view, you can educate the segment of your users that fall into the "don't know" category and not the "don't care" category. Their knowledge will gradually increase (and your headaches will decrease). They can even become pretty valuable assets.

+1 for noting the terminology (incompetent vs ignorant) and a good answer otherwise. – Andrew Barber Dec 29 '10 at 1:20
I've found personally that the majority of users prefer willful ignorance over actually knowing what is going on. Rarely do they mean it when they ask what is wrong. If they actually mean it when they ask I explain. Otherwise I usually just give a short, vague explanation. – Bart Silverstrim Dec 29 '10 at 3:16
Probably the most important thing I've noticed is that when users ask what happened, what they actually want to know is if they did something wrong or broke it. – Bart Silverstrim Dec 29 '10 at 3:17
I don't really like the car analogy in this example (and I hear it a lot), because most technical computer people are also somewhat skilled with basic mechanical engineering and possess a better-than-average amount of car knowledge. I like to go the humanities route -- it's like expecting an IT guy to have a Ph.D-level understanding of European monarchies, Native American poetry, or the history of the women's liberation movement. Or, heaven forbid, business. :) – jgoldschrafe Dec 29 '10 at 5:16
@Bart Silverstrim - YMMV. I would say that about 1/3 of our users are actually interested in what the problem is and not just worried that they are at fault, but I work in a small shop (which might have something to do with that). Most respond well to a brief explanation, but yeah a lot of people just want to know if you are going to yell at them. I never take the position of it's the user's fault, (even if it is). I don't want to intimidate the users to point where they won't bring up problems unless they have to. Agreed, on your second comment. – kce Dec 29 '10 at 17:12

I have always gone with the rule treat people way you want to be treated. When I take my car into the shop and I have no idea what he/she is saying, if he/she doesn't explain it in terms that i can understand the same problem could/will happen again. If he/she uses analogies (like mentioned above, and voted up) I tend to understand the situation better and respect the work, and worker more. (Example I usually equate defragging, cleaning dust bunnies, to car terms because others understand them.) Change oil, wash car...those type things.


"How to communicate with incompetent users?"

A chainsaw helps a lot.

This was really called for :-p – Massimo Dec 28 '10 at 23:51
I think he's talking about automating their job functions with a perl script... – danlefree Dec 29 '10 at 1:00

Learn something new that you don't really know about. I'd say car related is a good start, or motorcycling, which is like learning cars and learning how to avoid being hunted by them. Like IT, there are a lot of little facets to the technology of cars, a lot of evolution, and a great deal of complexity which is packaged up into a shiny box that tries to hide the complexity from its user. When you learn about engine internals, the voodoo that is a carburetor, braking systems, etc. etc. then you'll have something to look back at and remember when you were a noob.

For many of us in IT, this stuff just inherently makes sense. It always has, and therefore it makes no sense that some folks can be so completely lost at it. If you want to relate, start working on something you know nothing about... rock climbing, flying a Cessna, etc. It really helps.


Instead of being as arrogant as your question title indicates, learn to treat them as you would want to be treated and at least half your problem will simply vanish. For the remainder you need to learn to understand them and what they are trying to tell you, rather than worrying about what you're trying to tell them. Once you realise that you will find there are a great many ways to convey technical principles to those who do not share your skills, just as others need to do when talking to you about their area of expertise. Your very question tells me more about your lack of understanding than that of your users.


I took a two-day seminar on "dealing with difficult and demanding clients" years ago. It did a huge amount to redirect my customer/client communication to effective methods when I was a young arrogant nerd.

Answer - take an educated guess as to their skill level, and their needs, and give the best answer. If they demand more details, do your best. At a certain point, you may have to say "There was a problem and we fixed it." If they're repeatedly going after you, you may not be supplying what they need. They may not feel the problem is resolved, so you have to negotiate them to understand that - or maybe you're wrong and the problem is still there, or they've got a new/different problem. Possibly - rarely- they may be a "bad client" that you just have to ignore, but that's not common.


Respect them for what they do, and they might respect you for what you do. When I installed some software at a medical college one of their techs explained it this way - 'these people can take your body apart and put it back together but they can't rename a file'.

Just be grateful that computers are light-years easier to use now than 10 or 20 years ago, software is more consistent and there are great tools that let you watch their screen and let you work remotely.


Incompetent in their job or yours? I just treat all people with respect. If they want to try and understand something, I will try and explain as best I can, but sometimes I am not very good at that.


As one of my many hats in a small company, I do phone support for our users, and I'd have to say that real "incompetence" is nearly non-existent in the work force. There is only "untrained". Even my father can send a text message once someone teaches him how to do it (even if he did send the first one to a landline (which led me to discover that telcos are using TTS to read the texts out loud, so it wasn't "wrong" after all)).

That said, the users who read the entire screen to you over the phone one word at a time starting with "File (pause a second) Edit (pause a second)" when you ask them to click the button on the bottom of the screen that says "Next"... those are the people who strain my patience. Fortunately with phone support, I can simply hold the phone away from my face and breathe deeply for the minute and a half it takes for them to reach the bottom of the screen one word at a time, and by the time they get there, all is forgiven.


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