In response to my recent article about OSS vs. proprietary software, which stressed the need to perform handholding of non-technical users, some comments said something to the effect that they don’t want idiots using their software anyway.  I think it is important that we treat non-technical users with humility and respect, because just because they are not experts at our field that does not mean we can afford to ignore them.  (Plus, their money is as green as anyone else’s.)  In the spirit of promoting humility, I’m going to share a humiliating experience with you: I failed this Sunday at buying socks.

The Setup

I live in central Japan and work as a sometimes-programmer, sometimes-manager, sometimes-technical translator.  I am also an inveterate skinflint (a handy attribute for one to have when starting a business with $60), which means I only buy clothes when they go on sale.  My trigger line for socks is at 300 yen, which is about $3 or so.  

The missing bit of information in that sentence, which is so ingrained into us we have never questioned it, is that I just quoted the price of socks in the unit of “a pair of socks”.  Because that is the way we always think of socks: (temporarily) matched sets that are indivisible until the washer gremlins get to them.  This is so obvious to us that we probably don’t remember when we learned it, much like we technically inclined people don’t remember when we started using the word “license” to mean a copy of software and don’t remember when “open the folder” was an instruction requiring thought to follow.

The Sale

While at my local mall buying food on Sunday, I noticed a sign claiming that they were having a big sale on men and ladies footwear, including socks.  Specifically, the socks were priced as follows: 

Pretty easy, right.  You probably don’t know how to pronounce it, but its clearly 4 x (something) = 1,000 yen.  I’ll fill in the something for you: it says -soku.  (Or, together with the 4, yonsoku.)  The character literally means “foot”, and its also a classifier.  A classifier is a feature of Japanese that gets appended to a number when you are using numbers to count things, as opposed to using them as mathematical abstractions.  English uses classifiers, too, but a lot less frequently: think of someone saying “The rancher owns 47 head of cattle” or “Today I bought three pairs of pants.”

Thus my dilemma: exactly how many socks does yonsoku represent?  Does -soku mean “pair of socks” or “socks”?  If it means “pair of socks”, then that is 4 pairs for 1,000 yen, 250 yen per pair, so I should stock up on the screaming deal on socks.  If it means “socks”, then that is 500 yen per pair, so I should buy my stocks some other day when they offer a better discount.

It is not immediately obvious, by the way — I had never specifically been taught it, classifiers are wily beasts (there are something like six different ways to count a PDF file, trust me), and I know at least one other way to say “pair” which I was not sure exhausted the number of ways to describing “a matching set of footwear items”.  For all I knew, unbeknownst to me common knowledge in Japan was that socks are counted as individual discrete items, just like pants are.  (Try explaining to a Japanese person that you are wearing a pair of jeans some time.  They start muttering about crazy Americans and how we feel the need to pluralize something which any idiot can see is one flat garment.)

Hating To Ask A Stupid Question

 I stared at that sign for, I kid you not, ten minutes.  I was well aware of the fact that the entire situation was absurd, mind you: I’m a college-educated professional who has been speaking Japanese for about eight years now, I do technical translation for engineering specs on Big Freaking Enterprise Software, I am generally not a stupid person: and yet here I am, able to read the words right in front of me but unable to make sense of their import.  (Doubly embarrassing: the character soku is dirt-simple, is probably about first-grade level, and I can use it in at least two dozen words that I would actually understand, from “satisfaction” to “the condition of not getting enough exercise”.)

What I didn’t do

There was a store employee standing right next to the sign, and I’m perfectly capable of asking her to clear up my confusion.  But I didn’t.  Because who wants to admit they’re so stupid as to be unable to count socks right?  

Similarly, when customers are on your site, they hate to ask you the stupid questions.  Oh, you’ll still get your fair share of questions which might make you go hmm.  Here are a couple real ones I’ve had:


  • I want to buy this for my mother, but she doesn’t have a computer or the Internet.  Can she still use it on her TV or something?
  • Can your software (editor’s note: Bingo Card Creator) make bingo cards?
  • I clicked the picture in your instruction manual where it said Enter Your Name Here and it vanished!  What’s up?!


But mostly, when customers have a “stupid” question, they don’t spend time searching for your contact information.  They just bounce.  They:

  • don’t want to wait for an answer
  • don’t want to be seen as idiots (they have had that happen a lot with their computers and geeks)
  • don’t want to impose on someone’s time

What We Can Do About It

Luckily, since we have near-total control of the environment our customer is in when they start thinking of “stupid” questions, we can help them get answers:

  • Judicious use of web formatting.  Internet users generally don’t read, they scan.  Call out important points in bold, put them in bullet points, distinguish them with size or color, what have you.  Don’t overuse this technique or it can become somewhat difficult to identify what is really important.
  • Repetition of key points or concepts which are difficult.  Trust the teacher on this one: the basic pattern of every lesson is tell the student what they’re going to learn, teach them, have them mimic it, tell them what they have just learned.  We repeat the main ideas constantly because it helps them stick.
  • Avoid use of inappropriate jargon.  If you are selling to customers who are not professional buyers of software (hint: most B2C customers are not), don’t use words like “license” or “SaaS” or “support contract”.  Explain what those mean in simple English: you can one copy of Bingo Card Creator for $30, you pay for World of Warcraft every month, if you want us to be available for questions via phone it costs $100 per year, paid when you buy the software and renewable every year until you decide to stop.
  • Make appropriate use of analogies.  People will reach into their previous experience to answer their own questions.  For example, when I was (not) buying the socks, I figured “Maybe Japanese people count socks like they count pants” (analogy fail).  My customers have, multiple times, come to the conclusion that “A free trial for software is like a free trial for a magazine — I have to send something in to cancel it or else they will bill me”.  Rather than letting your customers find their own analogies, you should when appropriate guide them to things in their experience that will make sense.  (SaaS Our software is like a gym membership: you pay money for membership now and once a month hereafter, as long as you’re a member it costs the same no matter how much you use it, and you can cancel at any time and no owe any more money than you have already paid.)
  • Have a FAQ: You probably don’t want to call it a FAQ in a non-technical niche, but a nice inviting label like “Answers to questions you might have” or “Got any questions?” works just as well.  (Pro-tips: put the most important stuff at the top, have lots of questions visible at once, and consider what your mix of questions says to someone who is not actually asking a question at all.  For instance, “Q: My screen died after installing your software.  What happened?” is not a confidence builder, even if the answer is “A: This is totally not our fault!”)
  • Be the warm, inviting guy who welcomes questions:  Even if it secretly galls you that you have to answer questions, you should always put a welcoming, concerned, and patient face on, including in your copy around the contact method.  For instance, “Please make sure you have read the FAQ before answering a question so you don’t want our time” is distressingly common, and it is both off-putting to people (those with questions and those just browsing your site) and ineffective at reducing support volumes.  On the other hand, “We love talking to customers!  Feel free to send us an email if you have a question, a comment, or just want to say hi.” says “You may not have a problem today, but if you ever do have a problem, I will not make you feel stupid about it.”
  • Blame yourself, and only yourself.  No matter what your customer asks you, no matter what went wrong, no matter what they did: it is your fault.  Even if you don’t feel like this is true, learn to fake it.  Its not hard.  Say the word “you” more, the word “I” less (except when parceling out blame), and the word “sorry” when your customer hits something that in any way inconveniences them.  Twice.  And don’t do the cop-out “I am sorry that you didn’t see where I wrote …”  That assigns fault to them.  Who’s at fault here?  That’s right, you are.  “I am sorry that I didn’t write the instructions more clearly.  You can …  Sorry again for the inconvenience.”  

Useful Things To Know About Socks

So it turns out that -soku actually does mean pair of socks.  Drats, I let a bargain go by and the store lost a sale.  

Your customers are probably not failing to purchase from you because they can’t read (well, in the globalized 2000s it is certainly possible that you have less proficient readers of English trying to make sense of your site), but they’re also being tripped up by their “stupid” questions today.  If you can intercept these before they happen and answer them well when they slip through the net (some always will), then you’ll see an increase in sales.  Like anything else: measure, test, and seek continuous improvement on it.