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Breaking the habit

Doomsday Weekend 4: inertia, apathy and how to beat it

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Sysadmin blog Pott's First Law: user inertia is the most powerful force in the universe. This is due to habits and habituation. Habits are patterns of behavior repeated with such frequency that they become subconsciously embedded. Habituation is the slow, steady acceptance of that regular stimulus input.

Habituation is not only a result of repetitive exposure to an environment, but comfort in the habits formed in that environment. Click here, drag there, enter the same eight-character sequence in the box.

Sysadmins don't expend much time considering either idea, and yet they should. Both habit and habituation influence the perception that users have of IT systems. They are similarly responsible for many of the clashes between administrators and their user base. Doomsday Weekend afforded me an excellent opportunity to examine both.

Nothing shakes the user base out of electronic habituation like a massive network overhaul. Immediately following the replacement of fat-client desktops with Wyse thin clients, I replaced every end-user Virtual Machine (VM) in service. Users left work on Friday using Windows XP, Office 2003, Communicator 2005 and Internet Explorer. They returned on Monday to find Windows 7, Office 2010, Communicator 2007 R2 and Firefox.

The user base had been given months of warning, but the change was so dramatic we might as well have asked them to use Macs. User reaction was swift and negative. Disheartening as the few days were, I learned important lessons from dealing with the fallout.

The most important was Pott's Second Law: no matter how cynical and jaded you may be, you will underestimate user apathy.

Changes to the user experience bewilder and upset them, but it is pointless to provide them with instructions. While some exceptional users may read the documentation, the majority will do nothing except complain.

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.

It's not just users that develop irritating habits. During Doomsday Weekend I was awake for 82 consecutive hours. This was not a challenge or a dare; it was simply what was needed to get the job done. Past hour 42 I do not remember much of what happened.

Talking to me was like listening to a Walkman with flat batteries. I couldn't maintain a conversation, but I was apparently perfectly capable of doing the work I needed to do. I reconfigured the user interface of every Windows server in the company. I installed the same five applications on to more than fifty end user VMs. I configured every single one of our Linux servers identically. I entered the exact same series of static routes into all boxes; including those on different subnets from the bulk of the fleet. Somewhere along the line entering the information had developed into a habit. Sleep-deprived and largely unaware of what I was doing, I configured every system in each class, identically.

A week later I had begun to set up some new VMs when a friend stopped by to chat. When I looked back at the screen, I had subconsciously installed and configured all four VMs identically.

From all of this I have learned that the user habits that systems administrators look down our noses at, about which we mock them for “just not thinking about it”, apply to us as well. If we bear that in mind, it might help us anticipate or react to misconfigurations in a more efficient way. ®

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