January 21, 2009

Imprecision Is Periodically Not a Good Thing

So there I was, crashing and then restarting Microsoft Word 2007 every few minutes this afternoon. Making painfully slow progress on the document I am trying to write. Dropping F-bombs under my breath each time the dreaded "Microsoft Word has encountered a problem and needs to annoy the crap out of you" window appeared.

About the fifth time it happened, a new window popped up, informing me that some diagnostic activities had been performed and that if I would just follow this handy link, I would learn of the results.

Follow the link I did. I was taken to this page on the Microsoft Web site, offering me insight into a number of topics:

Memory Diagnostic — No problems found

Compatibility Diagnostic — No problems found

Disk Diagnostic — No problems found

Update Diagnostic — Unable to access a required file

The Update Diagnostic was unable to run because it requires a file that you have chosen not to download. To give Microsoft Office permission to download this file, do one of the following in one of these 2007 Office release programs:
  • Access, Excel, PowerPoint, or Word
    1. Click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click Access Options, Excel Options, PowerPoint Options, or Word Options.
    2. Click Trust Center, click Advanced Trust Center Settings, and then click Privacy Options.
    3. Select the Download a file periodically that helps determine system problems check box.
    4. Wait about a week to allow the file to be downloaded, and then run Microsoft Office Diagnostics again.

Hang on a second...or, perhaps I should say, "Hang on about a week."

There is so much wrong with that Update Diagnostic passage I scarcely know where to begin.

First of all: "...it requires a file that you have chosen not to download." Way to play the blame game, Microsoft. I don't remember being prompted to specify that particular user preference lurking deep in the bowels of the Microsoft Word Options settings when I installed the software. Because of my long-standing love for the many and random dialog boxes you pop (and my appreciation of the fact that you want to get to know me better by analyzing my user data), I say yes to everything you ask me. Software-wise -- for you, Microsoft -- I'm what you might call a cheap date.

But getting back to those privacy options: "Select the Download a file periodically that helps determine system problems check box." Download a file periodically? I can just imagine the conversation in the writers' room when they were trying to nail down the wording for that user preference.

David: How about 'Download a file that helps determine system problems'?

Susan: That makes it sound like we're only downloading the file once. It says here in the spec that there will be updated diagnostic files over time.

David: You're right. How about 'Download a file weekly that helps determine...'?

Susan: 'Weekly' sounds a bit excessive - as if we're anticipating users will have weekly problems with Word, which would never happen!

David: Besides, who knows how often Engineering will get around to creating new diagnostic files. Monthly?

Susan: Still too...precise.

David: Every once in a while?

Susan: Now you're getting somewhere!

And once you've selected that ambiguously worded checkbox... "Wait about a week to allow the file to be downloaded." Seriously? Wait "about a week"?! Either that's one damn big file to take a week to download, or...could it be? Could it be those diagnostic files are deployed on a weekly basis after all? Or, rather, on an "about a week"ly basis.

It's hijinks like this that give Microsoft a bad name.

Have you encountered any particularly cryptic, vague, or otherwise infuriating dialog box options or software instructions? (Or, if you are a technical writer, have you had to tap dance around the cold, hard truth to make your software manuals more palatable?) Share your story in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what the file actually does... It's a very odd message :P

Anonymous said...

you should be thankful that MS products are so buggy.. otherwise if they were stable, you'd have had to wait "about a month" or even "about a year".