Image: Frustated tech user
Duane Hoffmann /
“Regardless of whether respondents had their computers, cell phones or Internet connections fail, they were equally likely to feel discouraged, confused, confident or impatient during the course of trying to fix the problem,” says a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
updated 11/17/2008 8:25:29 AM ET 2008-11-17T13:25:29

Feel discouraged or aggravated when your home Internet connection goes on the blink or your cell phone fritzes out, and you don’t know what to do?

Take heart, you’re not alone, according to a new survey, "When Technology Fails," from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which says that many consumers find it difficult to set up devices, are frustrated when technology breaks down and often need help from someone else to fix the problem.

“These findings are a signal to the designers of information technology that they have to do a better job of making these gadgets more user-friendly to segments of the population that don’t eat and breathe technology,” said John Horrigan, Pew’s associate director for research.

Indeed, although many Americans households now have more than one computer, and cell phones continue to replace landlines in many homes, tech mass does not equal tech comfort. Bad technology can and does happen to good people.

A range of emotions
Because we’ve become so reliant on technology — more information is only available on the Internet, e-mail access has become vital, cell phones are crucial, and computers are important for Web access as well as playing games — our collective skins are thinner when any one of these devices or the services needed to run them is out of whack, as evidenced by the Pew study.

“Regardless of whether respondents had their computers, cell phones or Internet connections fail, they were equally likely to feel discouraged, confused, confident or impatient during the course of trying to fix the problem,” the study says.

Confident? Yes. Of the 2,054 adults surveyed, 72 percent said when their devices were down or broken, they felt confident that they were “on the right path to solving the problem.”

But there were other emotions, too, and they likely came two, three and four hours after “confidence” had evaporated: 59 percent said they were impatient trying to fix the problem; 48 percent said they were discouraged at the amount of effort it took; and 40 percent said they were confused by the information they were getting about how to solve the problem.

Among Pew’s findings:

  • 48 percent of adults who use the Internet or have a cell phone say they usually need help from someone else to set up a new device or show them how to use it.
  • In the course of a year, 44 percent who have high-speed, home Internet service said their connection failed to work properly, and 39 percent of those with desktop or laptop computers said their machines did not work properly. Those figures compare with 29 percent of cell phone users; 26 percent of those with BlackBerrys, Palms or other personal digital assistants; and 15 percent of those who have an iPod or MP3 player.
  • When it came to dealing with tech problems, 38 percent said they contacted customer support for help; 28 percent said they fixed the problem themselves; 15 percent turned to family and friends for aid; 2 percent went online to find a solution; and 15 percent said they were not able to fix the problem.

“Those who had their computers fail most recently were equally likely to fix it themselves as they were to contact user support for help,” says the Pew study.

Not a surprise there, perhaps, because dealing with customer support sometimes can be more frustrating the tech problem itself.

Customer support is “oftentimes a lengthy process to go through, just to get to the point where you can really start addressing the problem,” said Horrigan. “So feelings like impatience and discouragement can certainly kick in.”

And that can mean a throwing-in-of-the-towel by those who can benefit greatly from technology — not just über-geeks or gadget freaks, but those who need to know and use tech every day.

It was this rather large group of people Pew identified 18 months ago in another study about different types of tech users.

“Fully half of adults have a more distant or non-existent relationship to modern information technology,” that study said. “Some of this diffidence is driven by people’s concerns about information overload; some is related to people’s sense that their gadgets have more capacity than users can master.”

The findings begged for a follow-up, Horrigan said. “We wanted to really probe, what’s going on with people who have a difficult time coping with the gadgets and services they have.”

'Still some progress to be made'
The problem is, in part, problems tied to the most necessary gadgets and services. More than half of adult Americans have high-speed Internet connections at home now, Pew said recently. Having 44 percent of tech users say they experienced some kind of failure with those connections during a 12-month period is troubling.

“It says there’s still some progress to be made in terms of keeping that home broadband connection running with the same sort of seamlessness that we expect from electricity, or even just the TV when we turn it on,” said Horrigan.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pew also found that “younger users are generally much more optimistic than older adults when their gadgets fail.”

The breakdown: 85 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds “reported being confident about solving their device problem,” compared to 67 percent of those age 30 and older.

When it comes to cell phones, those in the 18- to 49-year-old age groups also reported more problems with their devices than older adults, Pew said.

That’s probably because “younger people are much more likely to make the majority of their phone calls on cell phones,” Horrigan said. “Plus, they’re more likely to get cell phones with a greater number of features (such as Web and e-mail) that might have failures.”

Cell phone: Teens' choice
Pew’s study comes on the heels of two others, one from the Consumer Electronics Association, and another done by the Opinion Research Corp. for Sprint.

The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group, said that 25 percent of teenagers ages 12 to 17 say they plan to buy a new cell phone within the next six months, “making it teens’ most popular consumer electronic product."

Steve Kidera of CEA said that 600 teenagers were queried online about their tech activities and habits.

Seventy percent of teens use their cell phones for texting, as well as for taking videos, watching videos and listening to music, CEA said in a press release.

“Based on teens’ current cell phone usage and interest in more advanced features, growth can be expected in teen ownership of smartphones,” such as the BlackBerry, iPhone or Treo, which have e-mail and Web access, CEA said.

Meanwhile, Opinion Research Corp. polled 2,010 adults about the use of text messaging and e-mail on their cell phones. Both features are important revenue sources for wireless carriers like Sprint.

More than half of those under age 30 use e-mail on their cell phones, Sprint said in a press release. But, “While people clearly understand the value of having e-mail access on their mobile device, we’ve found they also perceive it as one of the most difficult functions to use,” said Kim Dixon, Sprint’s senior vice president of retail.

So, there’s work to be done just about everywhere. Sprint, of course, is promoting its “Ready Now” free service to help customers get more comfortable with the technology they buy. And, considering Pew’s findings, it’s not a bad idea.

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