Digital Relationships

Why We Should Treat Adobe Customer Service Technicians as if They Were People

Alan Cooper begins the chapter called “Digital Etiquette” in his foundational book, About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, with the research of two Stanford sociologists, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves. In their book, The Media Equation, they came to the startling conclusion that “humans treat and respond to computers and other interactive products as if they were people.” Our mammalian brains are so wired for social interaction that even the inanimate things we interact with take on a sort of personality. Even machines, we form intimate relationships with our things.

Interesting, maybe not that surprising, although you never really thought about it that way. When you do start thinking about it that way — it becomes both enlightening and profoundly disturbing.

Insightful because it makes a brilliant case for why designers must develop empathy for their audience of users. You are building something that they will react emotionally to, as if it was another person, of a sort.

Disturbing because we often don’t treat each other much better than computers treat us. We often treat other humans like they are software.

Cooper and his co-authors want us to design software that behaves like a “likable person.” Our designs should have emotional intelligence. He mentions a list of traits we should put into software that would challenge even Andrew Carnegie. Take an interest, listen, volunteer useful information. Anticipate another’s needs, be conscientious, taking a larger view of a set of tasks, be perceptive, take some responsibility. Look at the big picture. And if all else fails, degrade gracefully.

Saying “please and thank you” was not one of Cooper’s suggestions. They are more like being “considerate.” Rather than just being polite: see deeply into the experience, the goals, the needs of the other person.

Just one example. Over the past two weeks, my computer has caused me some suffering. I’ve spent a lot of quality time with this old 27 inch iMac, five years or so — probably more time than I do with animate beings. Yet all good relationships have some measure of trouble and strife. It’s probably not the computer’s fault for slowing to a crawl with the big files I work on. I have taken it in three times over the past year, always coming back with a clean bill of mechanical health. The nice folks at the Apple service center I go to usually mentioned software issues I should look into. They were usually right.

So after the most recent check-up, Photoshop Creative Cloud was still running slow, just stopping altogether once in a while. I’d spend all morning trying different things, all ignorant of how the thing really operates, watching the beach ball go around. Then it started not opening at all, leaving me in an infinite loop of entering my login over and over again. Like something from Dante’s Purgatory.

No problem, I just went back to my old reliable version of Photoshop CS6. After a while, I wondered why I was paying for CC, since I wasn’t using it. I called Adobe to cancel my plan.

It’s not so easy. Adobe calls this the “Software as a Service” model. It’s no longer an object, like something that comes on a CD. I have an annual subscription and if I cancel, I still have to pay 50% of the cost of the remainder of the year. The nice Indian man on the other end simply would not let me cancel. He could have sold me a vacuum cleaner, he was that good. I ended up settling for a couple of months free if I just let things be as they are.

The series of Indian technicians I spoke to and chatted online with next were equally to the point, gracious, and generally wonderful, knowledgable people. It’s really incredible how they took over my computer, remotely, from the other side of the planet. It must have been night there. I sat and watched as their little cursor moved around my screen, opening folders, probing an searching, pausing for long periods, then starting again. Each session lasted 2–3 hours. I began to put my phone on speaker and lay down on the couch I have just outside my office. Every once in a while I’d have to get up and enter my password.

The technical brilliance kept my attention for a while. When the chat icon unexpectedly winked out, I thought some satellite glitch disconnected us. Or did he hang up on me? No one called back. I got an email refering me to a case on

Back on my hard drive, I noticed that he had deleted my old reliable copy of Photoshop CS6. I called and asked if I could speak to someone in the United States. No. I wrote in the support case response box that I refuse to go further until I could talk to someone in North America. No one responded.

My final defeat was with a different fellow. I asked if I could be upgraded to a higher level support since no one had solved my problem. No, he was the higher level. After he probed around unsuccessfully for an hour or so, he explained, “We don’t support that.” I wanted to get free of the conversation so badly that I thanked him and hung up. Later I saw on the web site that the case had been closed. Did he really understand the idiosyncrasies of my installation setup? Now, I’m not sure. I should have said something more, maybe he would have relented. How could they just “not support” having my copy of Photoshop install, verify me, and open?

The sun shines somewhere, but not under my Creative Cloud. Photoshop CC, my bread and butter, does not function, much less act like my friend. It doesn’t even recognize me after all these decades of working together, putting me on a trial basis, asking if I want to buy it.

My Adobe case number 187808846 is closed. The email said I could reopen it, but there was no link to do that. I would have to call that same number again and talk to another of those exotic people thousands of miles away, so civilized, speaking such good English, so polite. I liked them. I wanted to. Maybe next time they would give me what I so desperately want.

Maybe that’s what a culture barrier is. No matter how well you study another language, you will still never understand a native speaker until you’ve been immersed in that culture. The language alone and all the knowledge in the world does not make a friend.

Adobe, a software company, was treating me the same way that their software did. A dramatic welcome screen, an overly polite introduction, yet they do not take a personal interest in me. Asking for a code word once in a while, hanging up with no explanation, finally crashing and responding with an inscrutable phrase like those found in a system’s dialogue box. If nothing else, software should fail gracefully. “Thank you for calling Adobe” is not quite there yet.

It’s technically brilliant, but takes no responsibility for my well-being. In some ways, technology is still pretty dumb. I appreciate that Adobe didn’t apologize. You can’t apologize by satellite for not taking a personal interest in someone. It just sounds odd.

In this 21st Century, we are all trying to form productive working groups and learn to work better with others. Supposedly, we are smarter that way. Psychologist Daniel Goleman says that emotional intelligence is more important to success than IQ. And it’s much more than being polite. Essentially, we are all trying to become better at interacting with each other, become better friends. Can software evolve along with us?

Next time I call, I’ll ask about the weather, even though it will be night time over there, and the weather is almost always the same. They must be sleeping during the day. That must affect their mood and focus. I might ask what that’s like and what I could do to make it any better.


Today Divya Puri from Adobe called me. We went though the usual steps and he took control of my computer. It still amazes me. In around half an hour, he had photoshop and all of Creative Cloud working again. He even got my old Photoshop CS6 back for me. I asked him how he did it. It was just a corrupted licensing file, “…the last thing we usually check.” He is in New Delhi. It was 2:33 in the morning there. I forgave him for being a little short on conversation and thanked him several times in a follow up email. He’s only human.

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Cooper, Alan; Reimann, Robert; Cronin, David; Noessel, Christopher (2014–08–13). About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (p. 179). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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