A mouse? Bring me my Tab! — Using concept correlation to teach new users

I had a fascinating experience while at the “cell phone store” some time ago. I was changing providers/networks and phones, but what was most interesting was the Web-based system the “clerks” used to enter my information and how they interacted with it. You see, the “clerks” were comprised of a middle-aged manager and a teenage assistant. Now before you get ahead of me, recognize that this posting isn’t necessarily about their age difference or the Software Generation Gap. This manager did know how to use the computer and the Web-based system. What I found intriguing was that the manger used the mouse to click from one text entry field to the next, which worked just fine. He was getting the job done. However, his teenage subordinate stared over his shoulder the entire transaction, periodically peppering him with flippant “suggestions” like, “Don’t use the mouse. Just push the Tab key. It’s faster.” (Note for those who don’t know: like a frog hopping from one lily pad to the next, pushing the Tab key on the keyboard will cause the focus or cursor to jump to the next text/input field on the screen).

Having learned many of my computer skills from colleagues and my original computer mentor, I began debating with myself about how computer skills are really learned. Are they most often learned by direct instruction, passive observation/demonstration, or by concept correlation? In this particular example, I asked myself the following, “How did the teenager learn and subsequently know that the Tab key worked in the Web browser?”

I came up with a few plausible answers:

  1. Like the teen to the manager, someone first specifically taught the teenager that the tab key could be used in the context of the browser.
  2. The teen once observed someone else using the Tab key in a Web browser to jump from field to field, and though not directly told to use the Tab key, voluntarily internalized the method for his Web browsing experience.
  3. The teenager knew, from using other software programs, the Tab key could be used to jump from field to field. Having observed the correlation between another piece of software and the Web browser, he applied that knowledge to the Web application. Hence, someone teaching or demonstrating this concept specifically in the context of Web browsing was not necessary.

I support number 1 and 2 as sound methods for transfer of computing skills, but number 3 is one of the primary realizations that drove me to write The Ultimate PC Primer the way I did. You see, from personal experience, I do believe that users who continue to develop computing experience will eventually climb up over the steep edge of the learning curve onto the plateau — a place where, suddenly, everything makes sense because they recognize how it’s all related. That’s why I strive to teach core computing concepts rather than specific processes. It sets the stage for better success in the long run, even though it seems like  tremendous effort is spent laying groundwork that doesn’t appear to achieve any immediate results. Once  users understand the core concepts that are employed throughout most modern PC operating systems, they are well on their way to 1. learning more specific skills independent of direct instruction and 2. self-sufficiency in most normal computing situations. How can I claim that? Simple. Core computing concepts haven’t really changed that much.

Put a different way, if you teach a user how Tab works as a concept, you’ve taught them a concept that can be applied everywhere in his/her computing experience. However, if you merely tell the user, “On this page, push Tab to go from one field to another,” what happens when that screen changes (is updated or replaced)? What happens when the user is running a different program? The user is dependent and then needs an instructor or support person back on the scene…as a crutch, until the specific process can be figured out once again. Now, you might assume that users will know enough to correlate concepts from one lesson that uses specific instructions with another situation, but that is definitely not what my experience indicates. For new users, specific instructions result in specific processes with specific results. It took me years of trial and error computing to realize many concepts that computer programmers apparently assume new users understand.

So I’m a believer in teaching core concepts and reinforcing that they can be used throughout the computing experience. That’s not to say that the other methods won’t yield similar results. Every user’s mileage may vary, as each carries his/her own level of knowledge, determination, and intuition into the new computing experience. But it’s worth noting that, whenever possible, we should teach users broad skills that enable them to explore, correlate, and progress on their own, rather than cripple them with shortsighted or simplistic sets of instructions.

If you want a little more on this topic as it relates to my book, let me know and I’ll be glad to forward some information. And if you’ve had experience teaching concepts this way, or know of someone who has, go ahead and post a comment.


One Response to A mouse? Bring me my Tab! — Using concept correlation to teach new users

  1. Ryan H says:

    Ben, I’m looking forward to when your book comes out – I’ll buy a copy for my mom. -Ryan.

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