Can you (really) use a computer?

Let me ask you this: How well can you use a personal computer? How well could you have used a computer 10 years ago? 20 years ago? 30 years ago?

Opening the door on yet another year (2009, already?), I find myself pondering how much the ease of learning to use a technology depends on the user vs. the technology itself. For example, operating a computer 30 years ago was drastically different from today. Give a 30 year old computer to a handful of modern PC users, and many likely would be unable to compute at all. My hunch is that PC operation 30 years ago just would be far too technical a task for the modern mouse-clicker. Yet, today, there are still some who find the modern PC too difficult to learn to use and continue using. Think about where you fall on that spectrum. Can you use a computer well? Is it because you understand the computer, or is a modern computer really that easy to use?

So to what extent does an adopter of technology truly have to understand the technology to use it? Let me raise this question another way. Do you know exactly how all the parts in your computer work? Do you need to? Or likewise, do you know how all the parts in your car work? Do you need to understand in order to drive it? (Let’s politely overlook those who consider automotive tinkering a hobby.) The obvious answer: for the average user, probably not much depth is needed. Most of us just want to turn the key and go.

But I’ve never been satisfied with obvious answers, so let me open this question for discussion: just how much should a user have to understand in order to adopt a technology? Where is the benchmark for usability these days in a world now rapidly flooding with new technologies, many of which arrive with no training, product manuals, or (in some cases) any form of customer support whatsoever? How much technology knowledge do you think manufacturers assume adopters will have? And lastly, at this rate, what do you think PC adoption will be like in 10 to 20 years? Will learning to use a PC become easier or harder? What about other technologies and devices?

5 Responses to Can you (really) use a computer?

  1. eksith says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about computers 30 years ago. There’s no way someone accustomed to a GUI will be able to just “use” a compter like that, unless they already have some experience with consoles.

    Ironically back then, people who used the computers knew a lot about the innards as chances are, they were responsible for most if not all of the assembly as well.

    Your car analogy is very appropriate.
    Back when automobiles were still a new invention, all owners were expected to be mechanics. Or they had to hire a driver who also doubled as a mechanic because the machine had to be constantly tendered.

    Nowadays cars, like computers, can diagnose themselves and even identify when it needs gas, oil, or need maintennace. The car basically takes care of itself, so fewer and fewer owners know how it works.

    As that old saying goes “UNIX isn’t user friendly. It’s actively user hostile” πŸ˜‰

    Back when this “Windows” thing was just a nice plugin for DOS, and DOS itself wasn’t all that prevalent, being technical was really the only way to operate a computer.
    In fact, I don’t even think they said “used” that often. Only “operate” as it really was like rocket science.

    There’s this funny string of characters you have to type to get a file. And you can only enter text after a sequence of commands have been given. Unlike a typewriter, where you just insert the paper and start typing. I’m sure many office workers viewed it as being more cumbersome than useful at first.

    I taught my mom how to use her XP machine, and she’s extremely productive with it today. I don’t think she can imagine life without it now.

    But when she started using it, boy was ever it like using a chainsaw to cut bread!
    I don’t think she was using 1/1000th of the capability of the system at first. I guess you could say she was a bit of an early adopter as this was when XP was only a month old.

    Before now, the most sophisticated program she ever used was Lotus 1-2-3 on a DOS system. So you can imagine the culture shock at going from a blinking prompt to a green field and blue skies. I think a frequently shared sentiment among those who’ve used a computer decades ago to come back to it now, is the utter disbelief at the increase in capability.

    “You can do that?!” Seems to be the most commonly uttered phrase.

    The most helpful invention of the GUI may be the icons and labels.
    A “folder” is a folder. A “file” is a file. A “document” is a document. The real world representations are reflected virtually. For the innards to be understood, I think the concept needs to be taken further. Maybe actual computer components can represented virtually on the GUI. If something needs adjusting or reparing, you just refer to the icon of the component in question.

    In another 10 – 20 years, I think we will be retiring the word “used” just as we retired the word “operate” with the arrival of GUI’s.

    I think we may even stop referring to gadgets with names and instead say things like “I’m going shopping” when really you’re just browsing the net for products on a handheld device.

    Basically, technology that you don’t even notice is there. Even while you’re using it.

  2. Ben K says:

    eksith β€” from your GUI comments on icons and labels to the extension of the car analogy β€” it’s like you had a copy of the Ultimate PC Primer manuscript on your desk when you wrote your comment! Or perhaps it’s just that our experiences helping older PC newcomers is part of a much larger pattern.

    Your example with your mother is exactly why I do what I do. I’ve seen that pattern repeated dozens of times. New users often just need some help getting “in the door” so to speak, and usually the hurdle is not so much is not “where to click,” but why. Understanding what the computer is doing and how to grasp control and harness that for the user’s own productivity… that’s freedom, self-sufficiency, and power. In my experience, that comes when the user finally understands the concepts of computing more so than “click here, click there,” etc. (Though that is also part of good initial instruction.) It sounds like with your mentoring and encouragement, your mother was able to do that and become a self-sufficient, productive user.

    Helping others achieve that is my goal as well, but convincing others that concepts need to be conveyed rather than solely step-by-step processes is difficult. And there is also the sense, particularly in the publishing sector, that some potential PC newcomers simply aren’t worth helping. Hence, 15 chapters of material and over 60 illustrations sit on my computer, unpublished, as I type this. But I go on fighting because I know you and I aren’t the only ones that have had this experience with our friends, relatives, family, co-workers, etc.

    Anyone else out there have a similar story helping a new PC user?

  3. eksith says:


    I’ve setup a few CyberCafes in my area, and part of the job is helping the new owners with their systems. Most of them have been very savvy in the past, but been out of the loop for quite a while.

    My mom was a secretary for a while and was very proficient at spreadsheets and such. But again, it was with really old software and systems.

    That’s one big reason, why I found your blog very intersting. It’s as if you were reading my mind! πŸ˜€

    Ever consider putting together a website with some primers for new PC users? I don’t mean just a blog, but an actual resource site.
    If traffic picks up, you could use that as a platform to publish your material.
    After all, there are a lot of books and media out there already that started out as a web site.

  4. Ben K says:

    As for posting resources, absolutely. I never wrote the book to make money; I wrote it to help people (which is probably why no publisher is interested. Admittedly, it’s a tough market to target.) While I have planned all along to release some, if not all, of the material online, the challenge is that the end user of the book likely won’t be online to begin with, and certainly won’t read the content on-line. Print form is the most readily consumable for the target audience, so the search for a traditional publisher made the most sense. The secondary idea was to release as an e-book or simply post it as one giant PDF on this (or another) site. But a typesetter I am not β€” nearly all of my professional experience is with screen-based media β€”and if I post the whole thing, I want to make sure it is formatted well so that others can print it cleanly. That’s really the bind I’m in right now… I need a good graphic designer with print experience willing to work very cheaply or donate some time to the effort. Or, I’ll need to make the time to learn how to format a book in some piece of layout software. OpenOffice, while having a number of great features, isn’t exactly up to that task. (I’m composing in OO and doing illustration in Inkscape.)

    Lastly, your comments about having savvy users but a bit out of the loop… standby for a post next week (with illustration) that covers that topic. It will deal with how fast technologies change, resulting in gaps in reference points for those attempting to “come up to speed” on newer technologies.

  5. eksith says:

    Well, I’m very new to typesetting. So even with another set of tools I doubt I’ll be able to help much. But I am fairly decent at web design.

    If you do put up a site, I can donate some time in that area.
    Chances are, others will be able to print from the site. And you may find that HTML makes positioning items much easier than PDFs.

    Plus they’re far more lightweight and it’s reasonable to assume a lot of households with novice users would still be on dialup.

    I think I can design an easy to use, non-threatening, layout for a site designed for novice users.

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