No, I've not read the screen. Your software must be rubbish

Dialog? What dialog?


On Call Friday is upon us, bringing with it the promise of the weekend and the jolly times it entails. Start the end of your week with a visit to the On Call archives and the delight of taking a support call from users of software you wrote.

We take a step back to the glory days of Windows 98, Microsoft's follow-up to Windows 95, a penultimate hurrah for the Windows 9x family (unless one counts Windows 98 SE as its own entity) and a clear admission from the company that, yes, the web really was a thing.

Our story comes from "Al" (not his name), who had written an application for Windows 98 to perform automated lab testing. It was heady stuff – an electronic part could be heated or cooled to check its resistance. Rubber might be compressed repeatedly until it failed. And all the telemetry, be it force measurement, cycle count, displacement or some other value, would be spat out to a simple .CSV file for analysis.

Of course, The Call came in. Al took it and listened to the complaint: that .CSV file? Not being saved. Work was being lost.

More calls came in, complaining about Al's "unreliable software", so he pitched up at the facility to see the issue for himself. As is all too common in IT, recreating it from his workstation had proven fruitless.

There was nothing obviously wrong in the code, but still there was the insistence: the file was not being saved and data was going missing.

Rather than watch the process running for hours, Al set up a custom test with just one cycle – just so he could see if anything was generated without enduring a lengthy wait for results.

"I had the operator run it as usual," he told us, "then we looked for where the file should be and it wasn't there."

Heck. It seemed there was indeed a problem.

"I had him do it again, and this time watched the screen much more closely. For a brief instant, I saw a dialogue window appear and disappear," said Al.

He leapt forward. "What was that dialog?" he asked.

"What dialog?" replied the user.

Nudging the user to one side, Al ran the test again. The data was acquired, and a dialog popped up. "Drive Full."

Aha. The dialog even offered helpful options for storing the data elsewhere, but the user had simply been pressing Escape as soon as it appeared, not bothering to read it and thus cancelling the whole process. Muscle memory and all that.

A swift move of files to free up space, and the user (suitably embarrassed) was back in business. Hopefully an important lesson was learned regarding reading the screen before reaching for the phone. That said, we fear dialog blindness and a rapid jab of the Escape key continues to be a thing among even the most self-declared expert of users.

Ever been faced with a user shrieking for help after blithely clicking through the pleas of their PC? Or come up with some new and exciting ways of getting their attention? Let us know, with an email to On Call. ®

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