The Novice User
I read a great blog post today about working with a completely novice computer user. The educators who have been in my department for several years still tell stories about the transition from paper to computer documentation a few years back. Some of the staff hadn’t used a mouse before.
Most of the people I train on software have a decent baseline knowledge of how to work with computers. But every few months I offer a computer class for the hospital volunteers – most of whom are elderly. Many of them have computers at home, but lack some basic knowledge. In one class I spent several minutes explaining why you shouldn’t just press the power button to turn the computer off.
I think that experience illustrates something frustrating about learning to use computers. All of her prior experience told her that you use the On/Off (or Power) button to turn things on and off. This has worked for every other appliance in her life – there’s no complicated procedure for turning off the oven or the vacuum cleaner. But a Windows XP computer requires you to click on “Start” to turn it off!
Computers don’t work like other appliances, though. They use a rich and complex metaphor as a user interface (because they are far more complex than an oven or a vacuum cleaner). This metaphor allows us to interact with computers without learning a programming language, and that makes computers much more accessible and useful. And if you grew up around computers or took to them as an adult, that metaphor can seem almost invisible. Minimize, right-click, windows, control panel, browser – all are clear if you know the metaphor, but any one can be confusing if you don’t. Those of us conversant with the metaphor (particularly those of us that teach) have to remember that metaphor is not intrinsically intuitive. We get it because it has always been there or because we had to learn to keep our job or because we wanted to learn. But not everyone gets it. And as trainers, we need to be vigilant for the novice user and find ways to make the metaphor less mysterious and intimidating.