Nat Friedman

Computer Frustration


That’s the portion of computer experts who report getting helpdesk calls from friends or family at least once a week, according to the survey I ran on twitter the last two weeks.

My survey was not very scientific (163 samples) and definitely has a selection bias (most people who answered use Linux in one way or another, for example, although that doesn’t mean their friends and family do).

But that doesn’t change the fact that 58% is a big chunk of pain.

And a big opportunity for people who want to make computers simpler and more reliable.

How often do family and friends call you about computer problems or to ask how to do something in a particular piece of software?

What sorts of issues prompted computer novices to call their computer-expert friends and family for help? I went through 163 free-form responses in a spreadsheet and tagged them all to find the trends.

Here are the top 15 issues, in order of frequency (percent of issues mentioned):

Skype setup came up surprisingly often; I guess a lot of people are installing it lately. I was distressed to see how common printing issues still are, and curious to note that five different people reported that their friends and family cannot attach files to emails.

About a third of these issues could be addressed by webbook efforts like ChromeOS and litl, although the webbook model will probably raise new issues as well.

It will be interesting to see where Internet/WiFi setup, currently #1 with a bullet, ranks five years from now as the wireless infrastructure matures.

I also asked whether computer frustration has waxed or waned among family and friends over the last five years. There was some disagreement on this.

Based on your personal experience with family and friends, in the last 5 years, would you say the amount of computer frustration people experience has

The top theories for a decline in computer frustration were: increasing skill and comfort with computers (25%), and “they switched to a Mac” (23%). Some people also noted that software quality has improved (13%).

But on the other hand, people are doing much more with their computers, and there are many more computer users.

So your parent who five years ago struggled to do email is now comfortable with email and struggling with online banking or video editing.

Some people also cited an increase in the complexity of computer software.

Computer frustration is not limited to our less-skilled friends and family. Even though 90% of the survey-takers consider themselves either 4/5 or 5/5 on the expertise scale, 32% of them report getting frustrated by their computer at least once a week.

Rate your computer expertise.

Novice                             Expert

How often do you get frustrated trying to do something on your computer?

The list of issues which frustrate experts was more varied and detailed. A few key things came up again and again, however: bugs, bad docs, poor user interfaces, and interoperability/compatibility issues. Not the same as the novice list.

I was hoping to find a strong correlation between operating system use and personal frustration, so I asked people which operating systems they use. They could select multiple operating systems, and 61% of respondents did.

The sample sizes were small, but there was a trend. Here’s the percentage of experts who claim to be frustrated with their computers at least once a week (sample size in parentheses):

I also asked people for their age, and we can make the groundbreaking observation that younger people don’t get frustrated with computers as much as older people, or at least they don’t admit to it. Here’s the percentage of experts who claim to be frustrated with their computers at least once a week:

So what does all this mean?

Mostly I see a huge opportunity. People are so frustrated with computers that products and services that make things simpler and more reliable have a huge market.

Best Buy has figured this out. They don’t break out Geek Squad revenues anymore, but it’s safe to say that they’re pulling in well over a billion dollars a year helping people with their computers (at a healthy 10-20% margin – very decent in Best Buy’s universe).

But that’s just a small piece of the pie. Most people still lean on the nerd in the family. As one commenter on my survey wrote,

Not only am I contacted daily, everybody expects the help that I provide to be free.  Why is it that most people feel that computer people love to work on computers, therefore, they do not mind helping me just this one time for free?  If they experience an electrical issue, or clog their toilet, do they expect the electrician or plumber to fix their problem for free? No they gladly pay them and move on.

That probably won’t last.

(You can view or download the raw data.)
11 November 2009
Show comments
  1. Ian on 11 November 2009 at 2:46 am

    “Not only am I contacted daily, everybody expects the help that I provide to be free. Why is it that most people feel that computer people love to work on computers, therefore, they do not mind helping me just this one time for free? If they experience an electrical issue, or clog their toilet, do they expect the electrician or plumber to fix their problem for free? No they gladly pay them and move on.”

    Kind of off topic to your overall post, but this part? Yeesh. I’m torn between empathy and irritation. I had the same trouble, but when it started to get out of hand, instead of moaning, I decided to do something about it. First I stopped answering the phone, which was obviously flawed. Later I found a better policy. Near family and close friends get two helpdesk calls a year. After that I charge them. I charge everyone else no matter what. At first I had a lot of anxiety about it, worried that people would feel I let them down. Only after I told them did I realize most people were happier *paying me* than accepting help for free. Responsible people are like that. The other kind of people I don’t really miss.

    A lot of this family helpdesk angst can be avoided by just acting like a professional adult.


    1. Nat Friedman on 11 November 2009 at 3:01 am

      What makes you think that the person who wrote that comment isn’t a professional adult?

      It sounds to me like you have a lot of empathy for the issue the commenter described, and that you both reached a pretty similar conclusion.


      1. Ian on 11 November 2009 at 6:04 pm

        “What makes you think that the person who wrote that comment isn’t a professional adult?”

        Looking it over again, I may have read more angst than the original commenter actually wrote. If that’s the case, I apologize. I do have some empathy for that problem, but it’s tempered by the knowledge it’s solvable.


  2. Simon on 11 November 2009 at 2:57 am

    Actually, the most common things I’ve seen lately could best be described as “accidental use of power user features”. Things like putting the browser into full-screen mode (just one accidental key press or menu selection), leaving them with no idea where the menus and address bar have gone, or how to get them back. Or accidentally hiding the address bar (a clumsy slip of the mouse in the View menu), and having no way to go to web pages. Or accidentally using the Zoom function (hand resting on Ctrl key while scrolling), causing the text to suddenly go unreadably small, or big.

    It’s a tricky problem, that. ‘Power users’ need such features easily accessible in order for them to be usable – the zoom function is useless if it’s hidden away in a preferences screen. But making them accessible makes it easy for novices to use them by accident, with no idea what they did to make things go wrong.


    1. aptmunich on 11 November 2009 at 3:21 am

      Also known as the “stop pinching the trackpad and you’ll stop getting giant icons” problem in my family.


  3. Elroy on 11 November 2009 at 3:31 am

    hey, I know that problem. Funnily enough, I managed to reduce those calls about three years ago by switching my mother to Linux/gnome.

    She was extremely happy that everything was always working. But of course something had to give. In her case she had to have Skype available and at some point skype just borked and I couldn’t get it up and running on any distro or PC I used. Apparently something changed in the way sound works and skype being closed source couldn’t be patched for it. So she’s back on windows and I’m back to being miserable :/

    (She still liked Linux/gnome better than windows, because she could find everything. I guess using e-mail, and webbrowser in the menu instead of the program names helped a lot. I had to rename all the start menu entries in windows so she could use the pc again  )


  4. Leonardo Fontenelle on 11 November 2009 at 3:53 am

    Other professions have this issue. Medical doctors, for example.


    1. Nat Friedman on 11 November 2009 at 4:08 am

      Good point.

      On that note, I’ve noticed a trend in the comments. Correct me if I’m wrong, but some people seem to think that the purpose of this blog post was to complain that we computer people get pestered by novices all the time with issues.

      That wasn’t the point. I personally don’t mind helping my friends and family out with computer issues. They, in turn, help me out with other things. To me, that’s fine.

      The point of this blog post was that the results of this survey were, to me, in many ways surprising and interesting. As a programmer and entrepreneur, they give me all kinds of exciting ideas.

      Just wanted to clarify that.


      1. Simon on 11 November 2009 at 5:27 am

        I don’t think the comments are interpreting your post as a complaint, more a recognition after all these years, computers remain difficult for regular people to use.


        1. Nat Friedman on 11 November 2009 at 6:06 am

          Ok, just making sure.


      2. Leonardo Fontenelle on 11 November 2009 at 2:16 pm

        Sorry I didn’t understand it that way when I first read the article. In Brazil both medical doctors and computer scientists (or anyone messing with computers) complain a lot about being asked for help. As far as I know, both groups (and other professions too) enjoy helping other people, but get frustrated when people they don’t like that much act like they had the obligation to help, for free, at any time.


    2. Ken on 17 November 2009 at 7:36 pm

      I’ve not seen it. I frequently hear (sometimes from myself!) medical doctors asked a trivia question, like “how does a stress fracture differ from a complete fracture?”, but rarely are they asked to diagnose something, and I’ve never heard of one being asked to repair something on the spot.

      If computer professionals were asked questions like “what’s the difference between straight chaining and linear probing on a hashtable?”, we wouldn’t be frustrated at all. It shows interest in learning, rather than neediness.


  5. Simon on 11 November 2009 at 3:53 am

    @aptmunich – yeah, trackpads are a problem in that regard, even for power users. It might just be a matter of the placement on my laptop, but I’m always accidentally clicking in random places on the screen while typing… I can only imagine how much fun you can have with multitouch gestures and stuff…


    1. Roshan on 11 November 2009 at 2:37 pm


      If you have a Synaptics touchpad see Ubuntu Documentation: Disabling the Touchpad Temporarily While Typing. It’s probably the same on other distros.


  6. Arturo Espinosa on 11 November 2009 at 4:42 am

    I like your informal survey and metrics. I recently configured printing on a shared printer at the office on my Windows XP machine, and believe me, it was NOT intuitive at all.

    Now, this poll is measuring when something goes wrong for the user and it annoys him enough to “make the call” and bother the nerd in the family. There’s a lot of frustration that remains below that threshold, and users just cope with it; that’s where usability tests are kings.

    Has the GNOME desktop been subject to professional usability tests? Any plans for that from the OpenSuSE guys?


  7. Mauricio Gomes on 11 November 2009 at 10:32 am


    I agree with you that there is a real opportunity here. The difficult part seems to be targeting these people. It generally follows that if you develop a new software, or hardware, product the early adopters will be the more tech-saavy individuals. Pleasing them is very different from pleasing a computer novice. This it makes difficult to target both.

    If you look at the second largest pain point, Malware, you see another problem with targeting this group. Basically, this group does not see value in paying for software, especially subscription-based software. I’ve installed the Free Grisoft AVG so many times and used the free Ad-Aware product to clean a computer. Not once did someone agree to shell out money for the pay versions.

    I think a good follow-up survey would be to target these people and ask if they have ever purchased any software, excluding games, after they’ve purchased their computer. If so, what percent of it was subscription based.

    I agree that a lot can be done at the OS/computer level to improve software’s UX, but what can a 3rd party developer do?


  8. litl_phil on 11 November 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Hi Nat

    This is a great article and thanks for mentioning litl. Your thinking is indeed very close to ours. We think that, while it has its place, the multipurpose computer – with multifaceted maintenance and configuration issues – is a lot of complication for the vast majority of people who just want to have a decent web and streaming media experience around the home without endless updates, service packs, and totally non-integrated webapp interfaces.

    We’d very much like to have a conversation with you, discuss litl’s view of the web as platform, and get your views on our product. We’d be more than happy to get you an exclusive interview with our senior staff for this blog if you so desire. Can you email me? If you can’t see my email just email, for attention: phil.




  9. Luis on 15 November 2009 at 8:12 pm

    “That probably won’t last.” I think that is already dying fast; see, for example, all the nerd-for-hire services that best buy, etc., offer, or genius bar- there is more of an expectation now that you should contact a professional.

    Of course, I agree with the litl guys that the right way to solve this is to rethink the entire interaction paradigm, though I’m not sure if they’ve actually made real headway on that.


  10. Asheesh Laroia on 18 November 2009 at 12:47 am

    You quoted someone:

    Not only am I contacted daily, everybody expects the help that I provide to be free. Why is it that most people feel that computer people love to work on computers, therefore, they do not mind helping me just this one time for free?

    I think it’s because computers break so frequently and so catastrophically that it’s hard to imagine they’re worth anything sometimes.


  11. itomato on 3 January 2010 at 9:45 pm

    If you took a trip back in time to say, 1986, I bet you’d wind up with a set of results with a similar profile – capable users confronting issues resultant from variations in hardware and software.

    If, today, you were able to open the manual of your printer, and using a set of ‘usage scenario tables’, discern the correct DIP (or modern implementation thereof) settings, enabling the auto-configuration and communication options, several causes of frustration could be eliminated, i.e., initial frustration, subsequent frustration at the hands of off-shore support, etc.

    The same configuration scenario may apply to wireless routers, home media servers, etc.

    People want to buy and use. When they are liberated from the frustration of setup, configuration, and diagnosis, they reward companies able to provide that experience with brand loyalty. This is why Apple is a superstar. It’s what they delivered with the first Macintosh, and what we see with the current product line, all the way from the iTV through to xGrid and the Server and Storage products that accompany.

    Steve’s grand solution is to ‘provide the whole widget’, ensuring control over the entire experience.

    With Google playing a larger and increasingly inextricable part of people’s lives, we are looking at a similar opportunity; answer eight or ten questions (email address, name, define a basic hardware profile) and you’re on the internet.

    Compared to the late 90′s (when many users got their first taste of the Info Superhwy), we are in a great place. No issues with baud rates and flow-control, no parallel ports, no game ports, no IRQ configuration, no block/sector/track formulation, no Word Perfect vs. Word, no ‘will X read the diskette from my Y brand word processor..’

    Like the floppy disk, the underlying issues presented in the 1980′s with IBM PC-compatibility will vaporize, owing much to implementation of improved configuration through software and hardware homogenization.

    The hard problems have been solved in many ways by many people. Implement that solution in software.. Allow them to simply ‘use their stuff’ and have it ‘just work’. You’ll see ROI, and likely become the ‘hero’.


  12. chairman_me on 26 March 2010 at 5:23 pm

    the bright side to all of these figures is hidden in the last chart, but ignored in the conclusion (“That probably won’t last.”). that being – the people who ask me most often to fix their internet or to explain why their email is broken are, on the whole, more likely to expire than the people that take a minute to google it. i tried teaching people to help themselves for years. now i just look forward to the day when they stop calling me (whatever that takes).