This is just as applicable to any of us. Perhaps especially to us.
From: Phil Agre <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Red Rock Eater News Service <email@example.com>
Date: Tuesday, October 13, 1998 3:58 PM
Subject: [RRE]how to help someone use a computer
>[I would greatly appreciate if you could forward this article to everyone
>who needs it. This might include teachers, consultants, customer support
>people, help desk staffers, system administrators, librarians, trainers,
>technical writers, and kids who know more about computers than their
>This message was forwarded through the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE).
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>How to help someone use a computer.
>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, which can be found
>on the Web at http://communication.ucsd.edu/pagre/tno.html, copyright
>1996 by Phil Agre. It may be forwarded on the Internet to anyone for
>any noncommercial purpose. It may also be reprinted in any publication,
>provided that: (a) I am credited as the author, (b) my copyright is
>acknowledged, (c) the article is reprinted in its entirety, verbatim,
>without any additions, deletions, and modifications, and (d) one copy
>of the publication is sent to me at the address listed on my home page.)