The Top 15 Most Important Understandings Needed for Solid PC Literacy

What are the most crucial concepts that a newcomer to PCs would have to master in order to gain foundational computer literacy? Put on your “I know absolutely nothing about a PC” hat and consider the following. (If you need help finding such a hat, visit your nearest senior center for an eye-opening reminder of just how much you’ve already internalized and likely take for granted daily.) So, like a traditional Top 10 list (but with 5 more) ponder this….

#15 — Mouse Cursors 

Is it busy or waiting for me? How do I tell? When does it matter and when doesn’t it?

The operating system uses those cursors to tell users, “I’m loading, working, please wait.” Often, those indicators of status aren’t represented prominently in text form; they’re “encoded” in an animated (or not) visual cursor. Many users still don’t know why the mouse cursor changes and what that means for them. (Oh, and thanks, Windows Vista and 7, for doing away with the ubiquitous hourglass in favor of an ambiguous ring-shaped throbber. Not.)

Not understanding mouse cursors and the implications can have drastic impacts on productivity. I recall being passed a story of an employee from a former CEO whom I trust completely. This employee’s work quality was great but speed was terrible. An individual was sent to observe the employee and found that, when using a word processor, the employee would backspace over all text in a document to get back to where a modification was needed and then retype the remainder of the document. Yes, I’m quite serious. If only this employee know that the I-Beam was for.

But why should newcomers know? Why an arrow the first time? Why an I-beam the next? Why a hand on the Web? It’s a mystery to many users to this day, and so, not knowing better, they click away until something happens…. and end up with three copies their Web browser open. Speaking of the Web….

#14 — Web Browsing and Web applications

Everything is going to the Web. More and more support content and process is shifting to the Web. But is the Web really so hard to understand? Well, since the “informational page” concept has a real-world (or even a  non-Web) equivalent in “documents,” perhaps not. Web pages are not too hard to master, given a decent explanation, but they are increasingly being replaced by Web applications. Web apps feel different from traditional “installed” software programs, leading to higher levels of confusion. Three reasons for this: 1. Web apps have to run inside a browser. Software within software gets confusing for newcomers, especially since Web apps can’t or often don’t work like installed software. 2. Web apps attempt to supply the user with a “state-based” app but on a “page-based” architecture. In my opinion, this is and has always been a bad idea. Talk about mixing two completely different concepts together to create a mashed up mess. But it’s what the marketplace has created for us, for now. 3. There is no consistency, no enforcement of interface elements, and the app could change at any time (unlike most installed software).

Perhaps most troubling about Web apps and services is their reverse-osmosis effect on installed software design. Navigation schemes and interface elements (like accordion panels, #12, below) formerly only employed by Web sites are creeping into traditional apps. And while “find” features have existed in software for quite some time, “search engine” concepts based on Web counterparts are clearly impacting operating system design, and not just for searching local storage. Those of you on Windows 7 know that the program menu has drastically changed under the assumption you’ll use the search field to find and launch programs instead of finding and choosing your apps from the master menu. In exchange, the master menu is now more awkward to navigate, because it’s assumed search is the primary tool. And while search may be king on the Web, newcomers to computing often are newcomers to the Web as well.

#13 — Problem Solving skills (like when to copy & paste, use escape, save a copy of a file using Save As…)

“I’d like to let my family member know about this neat web site I’m viewing. But I don’t see an option for that in my web browser program! I guess I’m stuck. ” For you and I, we have learned how to solve simple computing problems like this. We know how to combine, sequence, and chain features of our software together to achieve the result we want even when a singular direct option isn’t provided. (I call this “concept chaining.”) In the example situation above, we wouldn’t think twice about simply highlighting the URL in the browser, using Copy, switching to another program, and pasting that URL to send along. But for the newcomer to computing, this is significantly advanced thinking. Yet, you can’t be self-sufficient on a PC these days without possessing a minimal amount of such problem solving skills.

#12 — Tabs

Tabs are most often employed on “panels.” These might be traditional “real estate swapping” panels or newer accordion-style animated sliders. Either way, you’d better understand that there is more to be engaged by clicking and exploring or you’ll be missing a lot, kind of like scrolling. Speaking of scrolling….

#11 — Scrolling

There’s more off-screen than on-screen in many cases, like I’ve mentioned before. Scroll bars are more than operational levers. Like I wrote in The Ultimate PC Primer, they are cues that more exists outside the boundaries of the screen for the user to view, engage, and access. Knowing to constantly check for scroll bars and understanding what they mean when present can make all the difference between having a full computing experience or missing what you’re looking for, no matter how old a user your are.

#10 — Managing Multiple windows, documents, or apps/programs

Multitasking is one of the things a computer does best. Yet, users don’t instinctually understand how to leverage the user interface conventions employed by PCs. I’ve witnessed newcomers who couldn’t figure out why others found a personal computer so useful because these new users thought (and demonstrated by their own basic usage) it could clearly only do one thing at a time — one program, one document, etc. If a user doesn’t learn how to multitask the computer’s way, they’re missing well over half the value of having a PC.

To illustrate this another way, I’ve encountered users who couldn’t understand why their computer was running so slowly. Upon investigation, one of these users had more than 30 open web pages running in the browser at one time. You guessed it: the user had no idea how to find previously opened Web pages or reuse the same browser window. (And thanks to the “group similar task bar buttons” in Windows being enabled by default, this user never even knew how many Web pages were still open. Many of the pages were duplicates. I always turn that feature off for new users, by the way.)

#9 — Status Indicators

The ability to recognize what the computer is doing, or the state various programs are in, is extremely valuable.  On Windows, the system tray indicators often are the only way to determine the status of a network connection, software needing attention, or the state of other things (started at boot-up) running on the system in the background.

But recognizing status goes beyond the system tray. It’s crucial when launching large programs, opening large files, waiting on complex processing, or especially when trying to wrangle disconnected Internet-based resources. While some programs — Web browsers, thankfully! — still sport a “status bar” to inform the user what’s happening, most simply encode status into icon-based indicators.

#8 — Copy & Paste

Like I say in The Ultimate PC Primer, these two features are worthy of the Nobel prize of personal computing. Knowing not only how to copy and paste but when to use them together can simply and quickly solve an extraordinary number of everyday workflow challenges. Honestly, just stop for 10 seconds while you’re reading this and think of how much you’ve used Copy & Paste. You take them for granted. Remember, most newcomers (and even some long-term basic users) don’t even know they exist.

#7 — Highlighting/Selection/Focus

How does a computer know the thing to which you wish to “do” something? Identification of things in the virtual world doesn’t happen like it does in the real world. This is yet another “encoded” concept represented by visual means. Knowing how to interpret “focus” and “highlighting” means you’ll understand what the computer is doing, why it’s not quite doing what you expect, and how to get it to start doing what you want, where.

#6 Mouse usage — pointing, clicking, and double-clicking (or tapping)

Identifying an object you wish to do something with, by proxy, is a hard concept for someone who has only needed to interact directly with the physical world. And while iPad-style touch/tap interfaces are breaking down the mouse barrier, until actual tactile sensation can be generated by screens, virtual world interaction (in the PC) is still a mental activity that must be grasped and mastered.

#5 — Icons

Think about how much is represented by iconography in computers. Don’t understand icons (and many don’t, which is why I worked so hard to establish a foundational explanation and illustration in The Ultimate PC Primer), and you’re going to be mighty confused by everything on the screen. Icons are not only the visual manifestation of a physical data file, but they also label buttons, identify state, and even serve as the launch and access means for programs/apps.

#4 — Menus

You can’t use the operating system or programs without them. Layers and layers of nested options are packed within them. It’s where all your choices are. If you don’t know how to choose something from a menu, you’re not going very far with a PC.

#3 — UI selection elements (Radio Buttons, Check Boxes, Drop Downs, Spinners, etc.)

You can’t choose to alter a mode or settings without these. Yet, how do newcomers learn to manipulate these elements that control so much of our software? I still laugh when I think of the popular yellow computer book from a large publisher (see the story in this post) that contained this line on how to set or change the clock after explaining how to open the clock: “Manipulate the controls in the Date and Time properties dialog box to change or set the date or time.”  What controls? What’s a control? How does one recognize it? How does it work? To a newcomer, a radio button looks like an empty circle, a mere graphic on the screen. A check box is just a square. A drop down doesn’t immediately convey it’s functionality or give hint to it (hidden, compacted) options.

#2: — File Management/Storage

You can’t save or open files without understanding file management basics. If you can’t do that, you can’t store anything longer than a single work session. The ability to record information in storage and update that storage is one of the primary things that make a personal computer more than a television or typewriter. And that’s just permanent storage. Removable media/storage requires even more understanding of intangible concepts. However, issues of capacity and size are thrown about casually in the public tech space. It’s assumed users understand these. But why would newcomers understand without suitable explanation? After all, computer storage space can’t be touched. Again, storage is handled by proxy through a visual interface that only somewhat recreates the physical world. Further, that interface convention has been borrowed as a conceptual organization scheme by all kinds of other applications now. So even though some are predicting the death of the file system, I insist, and many other authors who have tackled the PC literacy issue over the years would agree, it is still one of the most important concepts to grasp if a new user is to have even modest self-sufficiency on a traditional PC.

#1 Exploring — going beyond linear step by step processes

I can recall many times when a user asked me which menu command to choose to achieve something. Once, a user even asked me in which menu a command was contained. It was all I could do to not say, “Why didn’t you just look through the menus? You know what you need to choose, right? Just go look for it.”

There aren’t enough sheets of paper in the world to describe all the iterations of exact steps to achieve everything a modern computer can do. It’s assumed that, at some point, users will learn by exploring. Without being prepared for the task of exploring and having explorers’ skills encouraged, newcomers fear the machine, thinking they will break it without some exact step-by-stop process provided for them. Experienced users know how far from the truth this is.

Newcomers underestimate how much exploration and learning by trial and error will be needed. Learning to understand a computer requires that the user be open to constantly learning and adjusting. I worked hard to reinforce and encourage exploration in my book, because without at least a willingness to take a single step without an exact process, a user will never become computer literate.


It should come as no surprise that almost all of the above show up in the table of contents for The Ultimate PC Primer. If you’re looking for ways to relate the physical world to the virtual for a stymied newcomer to computing, I urge you to pick up a copy on Amazon or straight from the publisher.

Finally, as you look these 15 again, can you see that very little has happened over the years to change them? They’re largely the same key concepts from decades ago (perhaps with exception of the Web applications).  But, especially in light of new interface designs and connectivity options now coming on the tech scene, will they continue to in the future? Your thoughts?

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