Fun_People Archive
15 Oct
Helper, help thyself.

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 15 Oct 96 10:53:55 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: Helper, help thyself.

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
Forwarded-by: Dave Del Torto <>

Yeah, I'm teaching Mom (70) to use a Mac. This is Mom's first computing
experience since she was a "cardpunch girl" for some researchers at Berkeley
in the mid-1940's. Seriously. "Sorry Mom," I had to tell her, "but your
experience with a Smith-Corona electric typewriter doesn't really count."
She does have some funny "bug" stories about the vacuum tube days, though.

Anyway, I've never tried 'em before, but does anyone have a good recipe for
a Valium-and-Prozac cocktail? (It's for me.) Meanwhile, this little piece
from Phil Agre has calmed me down a bit so I can let go of the ceiling
fixtures and pick the No 2 pencils out of my teeth. ;) I love my Mom...
it's just that next week, I promised to teach her email...


"How to Help Someone Use a Computer"

  by Phil Agre <>

Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless they do a
lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they "help" other people with their
computer problems. Now that we're trying to get everyone on the net, I
thought it might be helpful to write down everything I've been taught about
helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

 * Nobody is born knowing this stuff.

 * You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.

 * If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.

 * A computer is a means to an end.  The person you're helping
   probably cares mostly about the end.  This is reasonable.

 * Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can
   do and see -- "when I do this, it does that".  They need to
   develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only
   happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through
   the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.

 * By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried
   several different things.  As a result, their computer might
   be in a strange state.  That's not their fault.

 * The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is,
   by doing some real task together with someone who has skills
   that you don't have.

 * Your primary goal is not to solve their problem.  Your primary
   goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving
   their problem on their own.  So it's okay if they take notes.

 * Most user interfaces are terrible.  When people make mistakes
   it's usually the fault of the interface.  You've forgotten how
   many ways you've learned to adapt to bad interfaces.  You've
   forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface
   would be able to do for you.

 * Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals.  A computer
   user who's not part of a community of computer users is going
   to have a harder time of it than one who is.

Having convinced yourself of these things, you are more likely to follow
some important rules:

 * Don't take the keyboard.  Let them do all the typing, even
   if it's slower that way, and even if you have to point them
   to each and every key they need to type.  That's the only way
   they're going to learn from the interaction.

 * Find out what they're really trying to do.  Is there another
   way to go about it?

 * Attend to the symbolism of the interaction.  Most especially,
   try not to tower over them.  If at all possible, squat down
   so your eyes are just below the level of theirs.  When they're
   looking at the computer, look at the computer.  When they're
   looking at you, look back at them.

 * If something is true, show them how they can see it's true.

 * Be aware of how abstract your language is.  For example, "Get
   into the editor" is abstract and "press this key" is concrete.
   Don't say anything unless you intend for them to understand
   it.  Keep adjusting your language downward towards concrete
   units until they start to get it, then slowly adjust back up
   towards greater abstraction so long as they're following you.
   When formulating a take-home lesson ("when it does this and
   that, you should check such-and-such"), check once again that
   you're using language of the right degree of abstraction for
   this user right now.

 * Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer,
   no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative
   tone of voice.  When they get nailed by a false assumption
   about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was
   reasonable.  Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable.  It was.

 * Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing
   for themselves.

 * Don't say "it's in the manual".  (You probably knew that.)

(This article is adapted from The Network Observer. Copyright 1996 by the
author. It may be forwarded to anyone for any noncommercial purpose. TNO
can be found on the Web at <> .)

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