The internet is full of stories of seemingly retarded computer users asking the most inane questions or doing the most ridiculous things. Are the people doing this actually stupid? During the relatively short time that I’ve been working in IT I have been in several situations where very smart people can’t figure out how to do the simplest of tasks. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about why people find computers hard to use, and what could be done to make people feel more comfortable and confident when using new technology.
Companies spend millions on usability and usability testing to make their products as easy to use as possible, so why is it that so many people struggle? Is it age? Is it intelligence? Is it something else? I have identified three areas that are contributing to computer illiteracy.
Let’s be honest a lot of people are scared of new technology. Not because it is going to hurt or harm them, but because it’s an unkown. Fear of the unknown is difficult to combat. People that have struggled to learn how to use a piece of software in the past immediately think back to that and assume this new version will be just as bad or worse. Many times after I have trained or helped someone who was fearful of new technology, I have asked if the new software was as bad as the trainee thought it would be. The answer is always no.
The unknown is not the only thing to be scared of. People are often fearful that they will break something irreversibly and will lose their job because of it. Again, being scared of breaking something is legitimate, but how is that any different from using an excavator on a construction site? You can do a lot of damage with an excavator. Does that mean you shouldn’t use one? Obviously not. I find a lot of people look at computers with that perspective.
If I gave you a command prompt (or a terminal for you linux/unix people) and gave you a list of people to send emails to by the end of the day would that be a problem? Would you know where to start? If you wouldn’t you would probably be experiencing the fear of “I don’t know what I’m doing” (that is the technical term). Currently I am learning a piece of software that is totally foreign to me. I understand the back end. It uses an Oracle Database, HTML, JQuery, AJAX, Java, etc. but when it comes down to it I don’t know how to use it, and I am a bit fearful.
Who wants to do less work? This guy. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. You’re busy all the time. You’ve got to get to work, hit the ATM, drop the kids off at soccer practice, get the dog to the vet, and 50,000 other things. I get it. So when I accuse you of being lazy I understand learning Microsoft Excel probably doesn’t fit too well in your schedule. You can hate me now, it’s ok.
As an IT worker I make sure to let my colleagues know they can always ask for help. I’d rather them ask for help now than mess something up that I have to fix later.
Often when I come to help someone with a problem they don’t want me to help, they want me to do. Ugh. I don’t mind helping in fact I really enjoy that, but I won’t do your job because you are too lazy to learn how to do it yourself.
On several occasions I have seen people who refuse to learn how to do a task and just tell me that they’ll have to call me the next time they have to do it. Huh? If you are using the excavator from before and refuse to learn how to make the bucket dump I would imagine that you wouldn’t be operating the excavator for much longer. When I took General Psychology my freshman year of college I learned that the brain’s information capacity is limitless. Learning how to access your files from a different computer won’t make you forget something important, I promise.
“There must be a way”
If you as a user want to make me happy those five words are the words to say. Yet so few people say them. Software companies spend thousands if not millions of dollars researching what people need to use their software for and what features would make their customers lives easier. So, there probably is a way. People are too lazy to care that they are hand typing calculations into a table in Microsoft Word. Users have a lot of problems because they are simply not doing things correctly and aren’t motivated to ask if there is a better way.
So far I’ve been hitting on users pretty hard. Now it’s time to shift the blame, and it’s not to the software companies (they’re going to get off pretty easy).
I’m blaming our educational philosophy. I was taught spelling by being tested on whether or not I could spell a list of words from my spelling book. There’s a problem with that. I can now only spell 6,000 words (rough calculation). Now would it make more sense to teach the 6 major spelling rules (http://www.englishclub.com/writing/spelling.htm) and learn some exceptions? I think so. People have been “learning” by memorizing lists in nearly every subject for generations. It doesn’t work. Understanding a concept empowers a student to learn deeper and more complex things beyond the concept itself.
When someone asks me how to do something on their computer I try to explain not only how to do it, but why you need to do it that way. For example, someone asked me how to “make the paper sideways” in Microsoft Word. It’s easy right? In the ribbon click the “Page Layout” tab then find the “Page Setup” group and click orientation. Well I also explained that the “Page Layout” tab is the place to go if you want to change something on the whole page, like a border or margin. I try to explain the concept of the “Page Layout” tab, but people only care about “making the paper sideways.” So in the user’s mind the task is memorized just like a spelling word off the list. He can make the paper sideways, but only because he knows “it’s the third tab and then you click the sideways paper.” He has no clue where to go to change the background or margin of the document.
Another area of learning technology that users often don’t pick up on is the correlation between physical and virtual processes. When software designers first start a project they often diagram a real life or physical process into its logical steps and then write code that performs those same steps. Even in simple things designers try to make connections to the physical world. Think about the button you click to add an attachment to an email. It’s a paperclip. Huh, isn’t that something you use with a regular message to attach things? Here’s another one, when you add a link to a document what is the icon for that? a chain. Icons have a purpose, and when you link (pun totally intended) the physical to the virtual in the same way as the software designers and developers things make so much more sense.
Like many things in life there is no single solution to save the day, but I have some ideas that can help at least a little bit.
The area of fear is a tough one. The three fears I mentioned are pretty legitimate, but they don’t have to keep you from improving your computer skills.
- Fear of the unknown future software upgrade
- Be optimistic, companies invest a lot of money trying to make their software easy to use. It may be bad, but you are doing nothing to change that by being scared and worried about it now
- If you learned it once once you can come learn it again. Hopefully you learned some things last time around that will help you through this upgrade.
- Fear of breaking something
- Figure out what things cannot be undone and only worry about them.
- Play. After you know what is going to break things and what isn’t fiddle with things. You may find a feature or option you didn’t know about, and you will be more comfortable using that piece of technology.
- “What does this button do?” If you don’t know then click it and see what happens.
- Fear of “I don’t know what I’m doing”
- Google is your friend. Really, it won’t make fun of you for asking stupid questions, and it can probably answer most of your questions.
- Ask other people. They may laugh but now you know and they can’t take that away from you.
- Again, play with it. I learn a lot by poking around and clicking on stuff. Sometimes it ends badly, but then I get to learn how to fix it 🙂
Laziness is tricky too. It’s impossible to make someone learn. Teachers have been fighting this problem for thousands of years, and I doubt I’ll be able to offer a viable solution. I do have some tips though.
- Look at it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF8GhC-T_Mo)
- The biggest problem I have with end users is that they don’t read the instructions they are given. Then they complain because it’s hard… There is nothing any IT department or software company can do to help if you refuse to look at it.
- Want to learn
- Computers are awesome. They do so many different things to make our lives easier. We may have to take some time to learn some of their tricky points, but it is worth it in the end.
- Do it yourself
- It may not be easy, but the more you figure out on your own the easier it gets, and soon people will be asking you for help.
- There is a way
- Ask questions, more often than not if you want the software to do something it can do it.
- Learning takes time
- Learning does and there’s nothing anyone can do to change it
When it comes to learning how to use software or your new phone try to learn concepts.
- Think don’t just do
- Sit back and look at what you are trying to do and think through it. You are much more likely to come up with a solution.
- Learn to look for patterns through a piece of software.
- Developers work hard to keep the same icons and styles throughout a piece of software
- Think about how you would do something in the “real world”
- Ideas on the computer often directly relate to things sitting on your desk.
If you read this whole thing I’d like to thank you. There’s no chance I would have read this whole thing if it wasn’t mine 🙂