Sunday, January 6, 2008


So while reading LXer last week, and I came across a blog post about "Blockhead Users" and New Years resolutions. At one point she said:

"A sizable number of humans have devoted their lives to erecting barriers to learning anything new. You can see it when you talk to them- when something as simple as "click this button" produces a glazed expression and drool, you know you've lost them forever. Of course they'll waste hours of your time complaining about how stupid computers are."

She is wrong. Yes she maybe an author (she has at least 2 books published by O'Reilly, that I know of), and can get her point across, but that doesn't mean she's qualified to teach non-technical users new concepts.

I've have done user training. I've even been paid for it. From the beginning creating documentation, to the end, standing in front of a group of users showing the slides and telling them what to do. I've also insulted users behind their back, and openly to their face. Heck I did it in this blog. (Most users can't even use email consistently). However when you are training users, you have to leave your prejudice behind. And it's not just a case of you're prejudice you have to over come. You have to be better than the other IT people that have been condescending to the user, and the user's view that all IT people are condescending pricks (not that we're not).

Technical users are the easiest to teach. They have a grasp on the general concepts already and you can usually move through the training quite quickly. The are also the ones that IT people aren't condescending towards. Because they know the techies have a back ground and don't automatically go into condescending mode.

Non-technical users are a different breed. One thing I've noticed, is that there are 2 types of non-technical users. The ones that are willing to learn, and the ones who think why should I learn if I can get someone to do this for me. The ones whose eyes glass over and drool, surprisingly enough are not the later group. However most IT people, even without realizing, turn on the condescending factor to 11.

A few years ago, I had a chance to really see this in practice. I was working part time at a local college in the research department. Believe it or not, it was a computer based job. The job was to write customized database reports based on user requirements. They had been trying to teach the users how to run those reports for a few years, instead of slowing the department down by running the reports for the users. I offered to re-write the training documentation, and since the director of the department was a professor on the side he did most of the classes.

One of the reports I worked on collected gpa data and classes, for scholarships for students taking history classes. The person that needed to work the report has a PhD in History, and studied a few languages besides her native tongue of English.

So I called her to let her know the report was done and ready for review. She asked us if we could run it off because she didn't know how. I said I would this time, and I'd show her how to for future use. I printed off a copy of the user training manual, and walked across campus to her office.

The first thing she said was, why should I learn to do this, I have other things to do. I replied so did my department. A department of 5 people, 2 full time, 3 part time. If we had to run all 300+ reports in the system for the users, we wouldn't have time to write new reports. We wouldn't have time to do anything but run reports and run around campus to deliver them. Then she went into how important she was. She had a PhD. Spoke multiple languages, and the like. She was tired of condescending technical people who think the users are stupid because they spend their time learning things other than computers.

That brought me up short. I never said she was stupid, I knew who she was from friends and actually had respect for her. I didn't think I was coming off that in a you are wasting my time manor. So the next words out of my mouth were "what languages have you studied?" I don't remember the list now, but one of the languages she said was Spanish. I do know that none of the ones she said were any of the languages I had studied at that point. I said I've studied 4 langs, trying to impress her I was more than just some pc head. Her immediate response was computer languages don't count. Of course I had to laugh at that point, and told her I studied French in high school, Korean, Japanese and Czech on my own, and was going to be taking Spanish the following term at U of M. If I counted the computer languages I'd be up around 15 or so.

We ended up stopping and talking for a bit. I didn't have the time to, but training a user meant I would have the time to do other things later. So I made the time. She went through the documentation quickly said it wasn't condescending like the ones she was used to getting were. I said I had hopped not since I wrote it for educated people in a college environment.

She did apologize for the rudeness at the beginning. One of the part time IT people came over to help her with a computer problem earlier in the term, and she was still miffed at the way the guy treated her. It started off as ok do this, oh you don't know how to do this, then you have to start by going to the bottom of your screen and clicking the start button. Ok you've done that good, next, etc etc etc.

Users eyes glass over and they drool, because they're people and have better things to do than listen to people who assume they have an IQ of 2. If you see the glass over look starting, then maybe you should stop and re-think the way you're coming across to the user. Are you talking like an adult to a child, or are you talking like a learned professional to another one in a different field.

Of course that doesn't mean that there are not users out there that don't want to learn. However their problems go beyond not wanting to learn computers. My mom is a good example. My mom will go as far as taking notes when showing her how to do something. She will do it step by step as you show her, while putting down what buttons and in what order to push. However wait a week, and she'll call to do it again, because she doesn't feel like reading her notes. They're not important enough, and the person she's calling can do it faster. She does it with cooking and other things too.

The point is, if you do want to make users better, treat them like humans. Expect them to know somethings, or have at least the ability to put clues together to move on. I've found that if you do expect them to know something they don't, and your treating them like humans (not nice, but non-condescending) you'll find they learn a lot better. Rick Cook showed this in Wizardry Compiled.

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