UPCP 1-Year Anniversary Thoughts (and 15% discount)

May 4, 2012

Today, I’m celebrating the 1-Year anniversary of the publication of The Ultimate PC Primer.  And for the entire month of May, the 15% discount is back. That’s right. This isn’t a one-day special just for Star Wars Day; I’m keeping the party going all month. Use code 3SGC9EP7 to get 15% off all copies when you order here.

In case you haven’t noticed from this blog, I’m pretty passionate about the book’s contents, approach, and mission. Here are some brief thoughts on why a guy with a family and full-time job spends 6 years of his own (precious little spare) time and money producing, of all things, a printed book explaining basic computer concepts…

Nothing else uses the same approach — analogies, metaphors, stories, and illustrations from real, physical things — to explain essential computing concepts. I searched for and even purchased a good number of “intro” computer books, only find they were mostly procedural “how-to” guides. Only one even came close to helping readers actually understand what they were supposed to be learning to use. In short, most computer books assumed readers just needed to know steps to “do” a task. I wanted to help build a foundation from which new users could begin to be self sufficient.

I wanted to help users who truly knew nothing; help them lose the fear, and begin to relate to common computer technology. Many newcomers have at least some pre-existing knowledge or computer exposure, and there are some pretty good books out there for them. But there’s not much in print from major computer book publishers for those who are at absolute ground zero, having never touched a PC before. Some naysayers have suggested to me such a book is already obsolete. Since my day job is handling technology-based training for a Fortune 100 company, I certainly know where those skeptics are coming from. Yes, the PC landscape is changing. But even with tablets, touch and persistent connectivity, many core concepts of computing are very much the same, no matter the device. It’s the mental framework for engaging a personal computing device that most newcomers really need. So while some of the content will undoubtedly eventually become obsolete, the approach certainly won’t. If anything, I’m finding more opportunity than ever to explain computers and other digital technology using that approach.

The book’s target audience is those approaching or in retirement; essentially senior citizens. This is where the greatest gap in adoption still exists. I caught wind of this new Pew research data on Internet usage, and as you can see, there is still a huge gap between those under 65 and those above. (It’s less than 50%  adoption for those 65 and older, though total adoption is 80%. 12% don’t even own a computer!) This is particularly interesting and timely considering I also just read a news article about how US Series E Savings Bonds can now only be purchased online. It’s the latest in a number of government services that can only be acquired via the Internet. You’d think in light of this, plus limited mobility of those older, would actually equate to higher usage than 50%. A lot of the people in the 60 and older demographic clearly think computing and the internet are too difficult to engage later in life. I didn’t want them to be left behind. I wanted to provide the encouragement, break down the fear barrier, and do that through everyday things each reader could relate to. And while I’m a big supporter of local community classes offered by colleges, libraries, and SeniorNet, some newcomers don’t have the gumption to sign-up for such services. It requires admitting in front of others they’re in that segment which knows nothing, feeling like an outsider. That’s precisely why I wrote and published a book (in print) rather than making an e-book, DVD, online video, lecture series or curriculum. I wanted to offer each reader the chance to explore the concepts of computing in the most familiar, safe way possible, at an affordable price.

My book will never sell a million copies. I don’t care. I didn’t do it to become famous or rich. Computer literacy training isn’t my day job (though I can say what I learned by doing it has also helped me professionally in a number of ways.) I did it because I know my approach works, no one else was doing it, and I had what it took to put it all together. It’s my hope it changes a lot of newcomers’ worlds for the better.  And for the rest — the explainers, designers, and developers — I hope the approach and concept — the way of thinking about and presenting intangible, virtual concepts through narratives, analogies, metaphors, and direct comparisons to real-world physical things — helps you think of your users and audiences in new ways as well.

Happy anniversary!

Explaining 4 Key Programming Concepts with Household Items

April 19, 2012

I’ve often found myself providing others with simple explanations of fundamental programming concepts. While I’m by no means committed to writing an Ultimate Programming Primer, my work on The Ultimate PC Primer got me thinking: what analogies, stories, or props would I use to explain the basics of programming/scripting to total newcomers?

First, newcomers need to understand that programming or scripting is the discipline of writing instructions for a computer to follow. In order to be useful, the instructions must conform to a language the computer can understand. Simple scripting (like Javascript for the Web) often involves taking information in textual or numerical form, structuring it, manipulating it, and producing output (like textual or numerical information, or even animation). In short, scripting is providing the recipe (as I call software in The Ultimate PC Primer) for a computer to “cook” something up.

Learning how to write a “virtual recipe” can be difficult, since computer languages, as with real spoken and written languages, require correct grammar. In fact, computers are unforgiving with grammar, and usually they’re not smart enough to guess at what you mean. So, programming is challenging due to the precision required as well as the foreign nature of the structural concepts. And that’s why comparing the intangible to something physical — something from the real world — is often so handy.

Here’s how I explain four of the most common computer scripting/programming concepts to newcomers trying to grasp them, leveraging a few common household items. (Since I haven’t included photos of each of these, be sure to see the video at the bottom of this post to grasp the power of the visuals.) Read the rest of this entry »

Explaining Troubleshooting

April 10, 2012

Unfortunately, troubleshooting computer and digital device problems is all too common an occurrence. But how does one explain the concept of troubleshooting?

Fortunately, there is a wonderful analog in the real world: physicians. Troubleshooting is what your doctor does for your body’s aliments, and for the most part, the process is the same. It starts with a review of the symptoms and when they started. Then, knowledge-based analysis kicks in: how are the symptoms related? Are they related, or are they coincidentally occurring at the same time? What are all the possibilities that could be causing them? The treatment — the fix — is based on the diagnosis, which sometimes requires additional research.

With a computer, this process works the same way. Troubleshooting is something that a computer can attempt to do itself, but often, this task still falls to the owner/operator. Here’s an example…

Read the rest of this entry »

Screen Resolution Explained

March 21, 2012

What is screen resolution? Low resolution? High resolution? What’s the difference?

If you or someone you know is baffled by the concept of screen resolution, including why the new iPad (iPad 3?) screen resolution of 2048×1536 is noteworthy, here’s a video from the Explain Technology YouTube channel that explains it.

A while back I wrote a post on how to use pinscreens to explain screen resolution, but I decided to take my own advice and use my suggested props to explain the concept of resolution via video.

How to Help Others Embrace New Technology

February 21, 2012

If you know someone who would benefit from embracing a new technology but seems strangely resistant, here are four important techniques to try.

1. Help them overcome fear.

Resistance is usually due to fear (though it can also be because someone doesn’t see any need for or value in the technology). Like I’ve said previously, you need to show them that fear is normal, that many people have such fears, and that most have overcome them with great success. (Bill Sleepers has a great success story resulting from the determination to “push in.”) Making a logical or legal argument won’t help; newcomers want emotional support. Knowing that experimentation and even failure is okay helps disarm the fright.

2. Help them understand.

People won’t trust magic, but not everyone wants the full tour of all facets of a technology. Tailor your explanations to the point they’re comfortable and don’t give them more at that point. They might be ready for more depth later, but restrain yourself in the near term for their own good.

Help them picture it. Help them see where they fit in the picture. Help them relate. See 4 Quick Tips for Explaining Tech to Parents (and Other Non-techies) for some additional ideas.

3. Help them own their experience.

At some point, each new adopter must make the decision to take their own steps. Let them fly on their own. Hand-holding may be a great way to start, but you don’t want to become a crutch that cripples a newcomer’s ability to blossom into a self-sufficient user.

Remember, everyone’s needs aren’t the same. That means their needs and uses for a technology may differ from yours. Not everyone needs the most sophisticated firewall and anti-virus software. Remember that just because you embrace certain technologies, they may want a different depth in how and what they embrace. Some people don’t want to have a Facebook account. Some people don’t like text messaging. Some don’t want to try to make a video akin to a major motion pictures with their new video editing software; they might just want to add music and titles to a few photos and video clips.

If you can take a skeptic to the point they’re no longer afraid and understand the technology enough to make the choice to embrace it, you then have to be willing to let go a little bit so that they can decide for themselves how to integrate the technology into their life.

4. Encourage them to keep learning.

Technology keeps moving, and especially for some older adopters, the pace will be unexpected. Again, they might not need to hang on every tech announcement, but they’ll need to know that what they’ve chosen to embrace will continue to evolve and may eventually morph into something else entirely. These are hard lessons for newcomers, but that shock can be mitigated by preparing them for the need to continue learning and growing with the technology marketplace.

The above four were the fundamental tenants upon which my book (The Ultimate PC Primer: 15 Simple Lessons for Understanding Personal Computers) was written, intended to help newcomers — scared, skeptical, and stubborn — learn to understand and embrace personal computing. However, these four techniques can be applied to any technology and used with newcomers of all ages.

The #1 Barrier to Technology Adoption: Fear

February 16, 2012

Know someone too scared to embrace a new technology? Wondering how you can help them get beyond the fear to the benefits? Let’s talk about doing battle with technology adoption enemy number one: fear.

I’ll be the first to admit, many technologies — computers especially — seem scary, complex, and in some ways, intelligent. Newcomers might even perceive that level of sophistication like a foe or enemy force. I remember well how daunting personal computing was for me to willingly engage. In hindsight, it seems silly for me to have been so worried about a machine. But my perceived inadequacy and lack of knowledge about the subject made it feel very real at the time.

So, is it possible to get someone to want to embrace the technology? Yes, but here’s your primary objective. If you even want to get your foot in the door and have a chance to win them over, you must first find ways to shut down their fear. Even if there are incentives for embracing the technology, they often won’t be enough beause fear is more powerful.

Eliminating fear was one of my primary goals in and purposes for writing The Ultimate PC Primer, and it’s also why the book went through four manuscript revisions. It took that long to figure out how to integrate multiple ways and angles for maximizing encouragement and disarming fear at every possible point of newcomer worry.

People find security in knowing they’re not the first to have trod the road of technology adoption, and it’s comforting to know that others who have had the same fears go on to overcome them and do well. (See the Introduction of The Ultimate PC Primer for my personal story, which is available in the Look Inside feature on Amazon.) Stories of success go a long way to reassure fearful skeptics.

So if you’re trying to convince a parent, friend, or colleague to embrace some new technology without success, take a step back and ask if that person is likely afraid. If so, drop the logical arguments and make the emotional barriers your first battle. Find examples of others who have overcome the same skepticism and worries. Empathize with their fears, even if you know those fears are unnecessary. Lastly, remember to be patient.

In my next post, I’ll offer some other ways to further encourage technology adoption.

Explaining Computer Viruses (with zombie chefs)

February 8, 2012

Ever wondered how to explain the concept of computer viruses? My PC recently acquired a virus. While I was killing it (using my anti-virus software), one of my children observed, “Oh! Computers get sick, too?”  Cute? Well, adults often have the same question. So here’s an answer and explanation using analogies and a fun story involving zombies…

No, computers can’t get biological diseases. Like most personal computing concepts, the term is metaphorical, borrowed from the real-world equivalent. A real human or animal virus is an entity that intrudes — gets into the inside of the body — and goes about doing something it shouldn’t, usually causing harm.

The same is true in computing. In The Ultimate PC Primer, I explain that computer programs (software) are really sets of instructions, like a recipe. The computer is just a mindless machine following these instructions. In fact, it knows nothing else except how to follow its instructions — precisely. And ideally, that’s what you want from a computer: consistency and precision in obeying the instructions given it. That’s what makes it useful for you. It follows instructions presumably intended to produce a helpful result. But what would happen if some instructions were given to it that were designed to do something harmful?

Imagine you are entering a cooking or baking competition. You must organize and direct the efforts of five chefs who will prepare five dishes you have selected from five recipes. The completed dishes will be presented to the judges of the competition. The chefs will follow any instructions exactly. (They’re like mindless chef-zombies who know only about following recipes.) All you need to do is provide the instructions for how they are to prepare each dish. So you select five sophisticated recipes from your recipe collection or cookbook and set them out for the zombie chefs to follow. But… Read the rest of this entry »