So simple it’s state-of-the-art!

November 1, 2010

I continue to engage in some occasional consulting on interface design. Most recently, I encountered a challenge: a client was deploying a web site for an internal audience which, by the client’s own admission, didn’t know how to use their PCs well nor did they have much time to “figure out” an interface. The client’s expectations were, in short, for an interface so simple that users with no PC knowledge could quickly use it. At the same time, it needed to be “state-of-the-art.” Say again?

At one of my previous companies, our designers operated on the premise of “elegant simplicity,” so I know that having a simple interface make a striking and memorable impression is not impossible. But simple form is different from simple functionality. The users in question undoubtedly needed simple functionality because their computer skills were weak. Yet, there was a  simultaneous demand for “state-of-the-art” functionality — something cutting-edge, modern, and “next-generation” both visually and functionally. I was told both had equal priority. Something had to give. Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t think, therefore I am not…

September 20, 2010

… able to do my job? …able to stay employed?

I’m increasingly encountering computer users who want me to help them learn how to do exactly one thing. It’s the thing they need to know at the given moment. The problem with helping them is, two weeks later, they’re back wanting to know how to do exactly one more thing. Usually it’s because these people lack the understanding of a core concept.

There is a minor and major problem to giving these people exactly what they request. First, I won’t be around as their consultant forever. After a favor or two, I realize I’m being used as a crutch. I refuse to give fish, so I switch to a different tactic and try to address the major issue: why they’re not able to think through the unexpected. These folks don’t understand the root problem behind their inability to continue working when the road forward hasn’t already been thoroughly marked with instructive signs. They’re slaves to hand-holding people, guides, tutorials, and job aids. As a result, they’re not fully self-sufficient and have drastically reduced productivity. Why?

Knowing a procedure isn’t the same as knowing why the procedure works, and computer use, as I say in my book, is inherently a thinking activity. Those thoughts must be based on something, and the best computer users I know base their problem solving on general principles and wholistic patterns, not specific procedural guides. How-tos and step-by-step instructions become obsolete relatively quickly. Core concepts rarely do. What happens for the user who knows only a step-by-step software process when a step in that process changes due to a software upgrade/update? I’ve witnessed the same result many times over. Every time such users encounter a break in the process — unfamiliar territory with no street signs in sight — they halt. They simply can’t continue. They’re lost. Unable to solve their own “problem,” productivity grinds to a halt.

Clark Quinn confirms Read the rest of this entry »

Forgotten medicine: Core concepts

September 16, 2010

Have you ever forgotten to take your medicine? Did you notice the effects immediately, or was it after some time that you realized the cumulative effect? We’ve all been in that situation at one time or another: there was something you should have done (but didn’t) which would have made a big difference if you had.

I don’t spend a lot of time training large groups directly, but every once in a while I find myself at the front of a lecture room providing a formal session on some technology.  I had this opportunity recently, and this was the best part of the whole deal: Read the rest of this entry »

Too Scared to Right-Click

September 1, 2010

I recently overheard a student talking about his internship. Specifically, he mentioned having to show a much older colleague how to use the right-mouse button to activate (and use the options on) the contextual menu. He was astonished that someone who had used a computer at work for that long had never used the right mouse button before, ever.

(For just a moment, I’d like to indulge in imagining why that individual never clicked the right mouse button. Fear? A mandate from the IT department? A variation on a Monty Python skit is coming to mind…”Thou shalt not click the right mouse button but only the left mouse button.” I digress…)

Read the rest of this entry »

A workforce smarter than a first grader

July 13, 2010

I recently bumped into someone who confessed that many of her coworkers (at a fairly large company) were probably no more computer-savvy than a first grader. Based on the examples we discussed, and also drawing from my direct experience with first graders’ PC acumen, I believe the claim to be true. This begs the question… Read the rest of this entry »

2010 says: You’re on your own, software user!

May 7, 2010

Having spent much of the last few months consulting on two projects implementing new software tools/systems, I’m intrigued by two very different attitudes within the same company. One camp seems to think the company should develop extensive training guides and resources to help all the users learn/migrate to the new software. The other camp seems to think that the new software is pretty consistent in interface with most other software and fairly user friendly. (The thinking in the latter camp is that any user who needs to use the software regularly and is modestly familiar with modern software should easily be able to learn on the fly.)

Since I’m an advocate of moving users from something familiar to something new — and I know I’m not alone in the industry in believing that to implement change, you have to acknowledge current state before you can move to future state — I understand the first camp’s reasoning. But I also understand the logic of the second camp. It does seem that hand-holding users to learn new software has gone the way of the dinosaur. Gone are the manuals. Gone are the in-software help apps. (Help is increasingly appearing as a purely on-line phenomenon with installed software.) We seem to live in a software world now, so doesn’t it make sense that software skills (generic — not tied to a particular piece of proprietary software) would be a core requirement of employment? At one time, knowing how PC software worked was probably considered marketable. But I think that ship has sailed, and it seems others think so as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Technology Mindedness Test

March 18, 2010

Immersed in technology consulting over the last year, I have encountered a number of situations in which my clients have demonstrated an awareness that increased technology knowledge (on their part) might be beneficial. In short, they realize they don’t think like “technology-minded people,” and they want to know how. While their intentions are good, their questions are misguided. Questions like, “What should I read,” “what should I study…” and even “who should I hire?”

These questions reveal a deeper issue: someone not technology-minded often won’t know what technology mindedness looks like. “Technology acuity” is perceived as something that can be acquired through “old school” means if one simply had a list of the “correct” means. While I certainly don’t discount the value of multiple methods of learning, trying to “learn technology” like a historical subject — without understanding the nature of technology itself — is folly. “Technology” is  (sorry to use a negative concept) like the cold virus. There isn’t just one. It can’t be memorized. The best in the field seek not to carve its traits in stone, but to understand its nature. The world we live in expects technology-knowledge to be increasing every day, so trying to “fake it” is self-defeating in the long-run. There’s a disparity in the two models of learning and understanding that can’t be reconciled.

I tried to think of a way to illustrate this for my clients, and I came up with a simple comparison test: two questions, asked of a set of technology-savvy individuals I know and then asked also of my clients. When compared, the differences in answers should stand out. Here’s the test: Read the rest of this entry »

Promoting tech smart employees

February 23, 2010

Everyone once in a while I stumble upon — or in this case, get sent from a friend — something that reminds me of why I became passionate about seeing the average technology consumer’s base knowledge level increase. In How IT-Smart Is Your Organization, Susan Cramm provokes readers to think about how voluntarily being more “IT smart” could make an entire corporation more effective. Her article is focused specifically on IT, but I think the lessons can be extended to technology in general within the corporate space. Part of why I champion basic computer skills is for the same reason Ms. Cramm desires to see IT engagement improved: it would be one of the healthiest and most efficient investments. In my observation, having most employees even modestly more tech savvy would eliminate a lot of overhead on basic support and streamline productivity in this digital age. I’ve certainly observed my share of organizations where many employees don’t know how to un-dock a laptop or organize files beyond moving them around on the computer’s desktop. It’s another reason why I’m convinced there’s a market for core skill training on PCs and digital technology in general. Of course, my goal isn’t to turn everyone into an engineer, but rather into modestly skilled, well informed technology consumers. I think it’s doable and necessary, and I’d sure like to witness the result of boosting basic technology proficiency in just one large organization.

Is big corporate protecting you from learning about your software?

January 25, 2010

Dilbert is a wonderful trove of vignettes on many corporate syndromes, technology ignorance included. Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows that there are plenty of folks who don’t understand what their computer is all about. I’d guess PCs and software, specifically, lead the pack in the “technology not understood” category. Why?

In my consulting, I’ve found that basic software skills — the ability to operate any piece of software once the user knows what function it is intended to provide — seem to be lacking the most within many corporate environments. Yet, I don’t find this true in other places.

Some time ago, I was approached and asked what I consider a very simple software question by a user I would have probably classified as software-proficient. The experience drove me to ask myself, “Why couldn’t this person  — with all her previous experience as a computer user — find the answer?” After all, as my colleague, Ryan, a former technology teacher, taught his students (grade 8 all the way down to grade 2):  software proficiency is not rocket science, but really just about exploration. The answer is likely in one of those menus somewhere.

So students in school/academia can do it. They’re encouraged to do it. And I find I do it instinctively. Is that the difference between corporate America and the rest of the landscape? No exploration, and subsequently no understanding? Is there something about corporate environments that is discouraging and even preventing users from learning about the technology they’re supposed to be using?

When I recently un-boxed and set up my new PC, I realized that I was drawing a lot of my confidence from having previously set up PCs, installed software, and dealt with the results mostly on my own. In many corporate environments I’ve consulted within, technology is governed and administered (to some degree)  by professionals other than the end user. So could it be that by providing a consistent “hands-free” operating environment, the corporate “ease” actually prevents the end user from having the “grounding” experiences — installing software and troubleshooting — that contribute to a core understanding of the technology? Would years of the same dull a user’s sense of exploration? At what point would it become detrimental or even crippling?

If you’ve worked in similar spaces, what are your experiences and insights on the matter? Do you think “hands-off” policies could be really hurting technology proficiency, and in the end, productivity?