Self-Perpetuating Technology Dependency — the “black hole” effect of technology adoption

October 26, 2008

When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we attended childbirth classes together, and the instructor mentioned one tidbit of knowledge that piqued my curiosity:

The more medical intervention you have, the more at risk you are for requiring additional medical intervention.

In other words, it’s a snowball effect. The more you have, the more of the same it takes to manage it, which only requires more yet.

Many years (and children) later, I still think about that and wonder, “Do we also find this concept at play when it comes to technology?” Read the rest of this entry »

What is MP3? — A salad-dressing analogy

October 20, 2008

What is MP3? Why is it such a big deal? Have you ever fielded these questions from those unfamiliar with the modern digital music scene? There is a pretty simple analogy you can use to explain it, but it requires a short set-up so that your learner understands the historical hurdle MP3 helped to overcome. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning and unlearning can benefit from careful use of analogies

October 14, 2008

As a respected colleague of mine recently retired, she passed on some nuggets of wisdom about life-long learning, one of which was the following:

“Remember, learning often requires unlearning.”

As soon as I heard it roll off her lips, I thought of how that concept is foreign to many who attempt to teach technology, especially those younger teachers who have only had to learn the thing they’re teaching once… because to them, the thing is what the thing is — what it has always been. Have you ever wondered why young kids can learn technology so fast? They’ve never needed to know anything else, let alone figure out how it changes their experience. They’re like brand new sponges. You can pour new concepts into their brains with no mental collisions! But, for us older technology learners, it’s a little different because we often already have an existing experience to weigh new concepts against. Let’s take PCs as an example. Most tasks that one uses a PC for have existed prior to the advent of personal computing (communications, budgeting, leisure, etc.)… the PC is really is a new way to accomplish those. What’s a good way to explain the newer way? Analogies, of course!

I believe in using analogies not only based on the scholarly research, but because from personal and professional experience I’ve found learning something new often is done by comparison/linking to something already known. If two things have a commonality in concept, and one is already familiar to the learner, then it can be a great way to explain the unknown. That’s why I maximize the use of analogies in teaching technology to older computing newcomers. (In fact, one of the early chapters of The Ultimate PC Primer is exclusively dedicated to one central “backbone” analogy that helps drive the reminder of the explanations of core computing concepts.) One of the benefits of being older is that one has a vast wealth of experiences to draw on when engaging new experiences. That said…

Problems can develop when a new technology is fundamentally different from something the new user is attempting to compare against or when the new technology is a radical change from the old way of doing the same thing. In this case, a difficult thing must be done: the user has to unlearn the previous way, or at least “un-link” (conceptually differentiate) from the past experience. It can be particularly challenging to teach the concept using an analogy because that analogy must then achieve two goals: 1. convey the new concept clearly, with a easily understandable connection to the user’s past (or a universally understood concept); and 2. be readily different in concept from that which must also be “un-taught,” so as to not create a mis-association. (Have you ever learned to understand or remember something the wrong way? Ugh. You’re forever trying to remember which is the right way.)

Even with this goal in mind, not all analogies can be perfect. In fact, nit-picked too thoroughly, all analogies will break down at some point. (That’s why they’re “analogies.”) I heavily ponder analogies before using one, trying to get closest to the bull’s-eye while also trying to avoid those that will likely cause concept confusion. Here’s an actual example from a dilemma I faced while writing The Ultimate PC Primer. I was searching for a good analogy to explain the function of Caps Lock on the PC keyboard. Since Caps Lock deals with upper and lower case letters, one of my first ideas was to compare it with switching between high-beam and low-beam headlights on an automobile. But that analogy didn’t make it past the first draft. As I thought about using Caps Lock and then about switching between normal and high-beams when I drive, I realized that the headlights provide far greater visual feedback than the Caps Lock button does. Think about it. You use headlights at night, and what’s the primary way you can confirm that you’ve switched from one set of lights to the other? You look out the window. You see the actual effect of the lights. True, there is an indicator on the dashboard, but that’s not generally the first (and certainly not the only) way. Now with Caps Lock, there is only that little light on the keyboard. And that’s a big difference when you’re trying to 1. explain a new concept and 2. use an analogy that won’t confuse the concept more than clarify. Sure, headlights might explain the toggling concept, but it doesn’t help new users when they’re trying to figure out if Caps Lock is on or off.

So consider your analogies carefully, and remember that some learners are actually trying to unlearn and figure out differences while you’re teaching them. And if you’re curious what analogy I used to explain Caps Lock, you’ll just have to wait for the book to be published to find out.

Is Microsoft is slamming Windows shut for new users?

October 10, 2008

A colleague of mine forwarded this article on Microsoft extending the life of its Windows XP operating system due to user disinterest in its next operating system, Windows Vista. Apparently Microsoft is concerned about users not wanting to transition, as they intended, from XP to Vista.

I find this situation curious. First, I have heard all the arguments/complaints about incompatibilities, stability, security, etc., but let’s set those aside and ask a more fundamental question: why would users want to upgrade an operating system at all? If Microsoft is so concerned about maintaining market share (and widespread discussion indicates that they certainly are), why not take a look at why users don’t want to use the next, newest thing just because it’s the next, newest thing? Most people I know are perfectly content using Windows XP. Since an operating system governs the user experience for operating the PC, switching the OS is not a small change.

Here’s what I think the answer to that question is: most users don’t. Technology users that actively depend on the technology for productivity really just want consistency, and will only accept change if it makes tasks better in some way — faster, more efficient, and almost universally, easier. Do you really want to use new technology if it doesn’t provide you with something you need? Will you acquire the newer form of that technology if it doesn’t provide you with something crucial that you don’t have today? Do you want technology that makes (or even if it only appears to make) your tasks more difficult? Efficiency is found in consistency, and products that change constantly won’t be well adopted by those that need to be able to depend on using the technology without taking time to re-learn, re-learn, re-learn. Yes, there are some technology aficionados that love that cycle, but I feel safe in saying that most of us don’t. We just want our technology to work for us, not the other way around.

Now, in the context of operating system changes, put on the new PC user hat. For new users, change is almost insurmountable. (Is change while learning difficult? Have you ever tried changing the engine on a moving car?) A PC is hard enough to use. Change the operating system significantly and they’re ready to throw in the towel altogether. As a more experienced user, I understand updates are needed (especially for security these days), but honestly, I wonder if Microsoft likes change just for the sake of change (and profit.) Could it be that Windows XP is simply good enough for most existing PC users? Is it possible Vista doesn’t yield anything “improved” enough to warrant the change? And what about our brand new PC users? Is Vista or XP better for them, or neither?

Given that choice, my vote would be neither. Neither Windows XP nor Windows Vista are gracious enough to new users… they’re obviously made for existing users. Since learning about PCs and operating systems is a pretty tough request for new users, is there something that could make the learning curve easier? I think there might be. My colleagues know I’m a big fan of software that teaches users to develop better skills (on that particular software) via different “user modes.” Many pieces of software currently on the market have “beginner” modes which allow new users to be productive without expending vast amounts of effort just to learn the software. Eventually, an intermediate mode allows users to progress toward more sophisticated use. Truly experienced users can elect “advanced” mode.

For some time it has been my opinion that Windows needs something like this. Imagine an interface that is a little more “real world” for new PC users. It would be intuitive, yet allow completion of the same tasks the standard (“advanced”) Windows interface does while at the same time reinforcing the concepts needed to understand “advanced mode.” What might “beginner” mode look like? Well, I have a few ideas running around in my mind… nothing final, but it would surely need to be a little more discreet. Perhaps the interface would be slightly analogous to other “real world” machines. Now, please understand  I do NOT mean something like Microsoft Bob. While “Bob” used a real world,  analogy-based approach to the PC interface— and I’m certainly fond of analogies — it took the concept much too far. Note to Microsoft (and other developers): even the newest, most elderly users understand that a PC is a machine. What they don’t understand is how to operate it!

That’s what I see as the ultimate challenge — making sense of the machine. That’s why I wrote The Ultimate PC Primer , and that’s where I see Microsoft’s operating systems closing the door on new PC users — the OS is still too foreign. Do I think it’s easy to solve? Not at all. But it is needed, and it is worthwhile to try to solve. So while Microsoft is worried about losing existing users when it comes to adoption of their new operating system(s), perhaps they should also double-check to make sure they’re not slamming their own Windows closed on potential newcomers to the market.

It’s 2008. Can you move a window?

October 9, 2008

During the last four years of writing The Ultimate PC Primer, I’ve often found myself wanting to pull the plug on the project altogether. I doubt my calling, often musing, “Does anyone really need this? Am I really helping anyone?” Hey, ask yourself: Aside from brand new users, don’t most experienced PC users know all the basic computer skills they need?

Invariably, it’s not many days later when I find myself in another situation with a modestly experienced user that convinces me that I must continue. This was one of those weeks. I had no time to make progress on the final edits and illustrations. No time to review my analogies to make sure they’re just right. Not much time to even sneak out a blog post. I was growing fairly frustrated, and then, once again, I had “the moment.”

A few days ago I was sitting through a presentation dealing with some rather non-technical stuff: career goals, business writing, etc. The presenter was experienced and well respected in his company for having this experience and knowledge, and the presentation was flowing well until it became evident that the image on the presenter’s laptop computer wasn’t matching the image on the projection screen. The edge of the Web browser window didn’t show for the audience as it (apparently) did for the presenter. After it was evident this was going to cause the audience to miss some relevant information, someone informed the presenter (with back still to the screen), “We need the window moved over.” The presenter spun around, observed the problem, and turned to the audience. We all expected a 2-second fix as the presenter re-positioned the window, but….

A rather blank stare greeted us instead, and what followed was like a crowd of parents attempting to direct young children lost in a maze. “Grab the top! No, the very top! Move your mouse up to the top! The blue bar! No, the blue bar at the top of the Browser! Yes… no! The top of the window!”

I observed silently and experienced once again the realization that has driven me for the past four years: there are still users — skilled, tenured, old, young, experienced and inexperienced — that have no grasp of basic computer operation concepts. After all, this presenter was not new to using a computer nor a newbie within company or profession. Yet, moving a program’s window was apparently never learned, even though that concept has not changed in well over a decade.

Just FYI, the section in my book that explains repositioning a window is already complete, and after reviewing this recent experience, I’m confident in the explanation, analogy, and illustration I’ve used.  But the presentation was what I needed to sigh, gather my determination, and forge ahead “explaining technology” once more.

Radio buttons apparently not yet common knowledge

October 1, 2008

Most days I feel I do a pretty good job of putting myself in the new user’s shoes, but there are times that I’m reminded I need to take a step back and ask, “Is this concept really common knowledge, or do I just think it is because I’ve known it for so long?” This is the “curse of knowledge,” a term popularized by Chip and Dan Heath, which suggests once a person has too much knowledge about a field, it is difficult for the person to imagine what it is like not to know. (Chip Heath gave this example, in an interview in The McKinsey Quarterly, saying “The IT person knows so much that he or she can’t imagine knowing as little as the rest of us.”)

Even as an advocate for new technology users, I’m occasionally reminded of the need to be diligent in reassessing my own “accursedness.” Recently, I had the opportunity to take an on-line survey offered by a Fortune 100 company. It was the standard radio button survey with five options for each question. You might think that no interface element is as simple as a set of radio buttons, but when I saw the link “Instructions for taking this survey,” I was curious. What could be simpler than a radio button based survey? To my surprise, the instructions contained something worded like the following:

Place the arrow on the circle for your selected response, and left click on your mouse. A black dot should appear in the circle for your selected response. To change your answer, place the arrow on the circle for your new response and left click on your mouse. The black dot will now appear in the circle for your new response.

I have to admit that my first thought was, “Is this really necessary? In this day and age, do users really not know how to operate a set of radio buttons?” But then the amazement gave way to one of those “ah-ha” moments. Here is a survey offered by a major corporation, one which has surely conducted its share of surveys. So it stands to reason that, based on their experience, they’ve discovered there are indeed some users who don’t understand how to operate radio buttons enough to take a simple survey.

After I recovered from the initial astonishment, it occurred to me that I had at one time considered omitting an explanation of radio buttons from my upcoming book. I eventually decided that, though they’re seemingly all too common, radio buttons should be discussed if only for the sake of completeness. This recent survey experience confirms that perhaps I should take one more look at that section prior to publication to ensure I didn’t leave the topic too thin.

Moreover, this experience is a good reminder for all of us who endeavor to explain technology that we are indeed “cursed” with both knowledge and, perhaps more than we realize, the assumption that some topics are too simple to require explanation.