Explain your thinking. Don't make it mysterious.
February 25, 2020 11:29 AM   Subscribe

How to help someone use a computer. Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who's part of a community of computer users will have an easier time than one who isn't. Phil Agre's classic text on helping others use computers.

Attend to the symbolism of the interaction. Try to 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.
posted by mecran01 (47 comments total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
 
Evergreen stuff in there. Thanks for posting this.
posted by jquinby at 11:49 AM on February 25, 2020 [10 favorites]


Thank you for this. I volunteer to help older people and ESL speakers with computers, and I worry sometimes about how much better I could be doing. I wish I'd had this earlier!
posted by Countess Elena at 12:06 PM on February 25, 2020


I have known so many IT/support people that need to have this stapled to their forehead...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:07 PM on February 25, 2020 [8 favorites]


(And I do have to "explain bad design" all the time because of fucking ads that disguise themselves as big green "continue" buttons on websites.")
posted by Countess Elena at 12:08 PM on February 25, 2020 [7 favorites]


One thing I have learned is that many people in what I am going to call a remedial situation with computers are confused and upset by alternative explanations. Keep it simple. If someone doesn't know how to copy and paste, teach them how to do it from the menu, and don't bring up the keyboard shortcuts. Save that for later.
posted by thelonius at 12:12 PM on February 25, 2020 [17 favorites]


When I was 10 in 1994 I had to teach all the 4th grade teachers how to use the computers in the computer lab. I have been doing this so long. This is exactly the reason why I went into UX design, because I hate having to do this and I wanted to be the decision maker. One of my first jobs was working at a receptionist at a social services agency and I remember helping my supervisor with the horrible client records database we had to use and the very moment I thought "This isn't OK, I need to be in charge of this bullshit". (I'm still not in charge of the bullshit, sorry, I am doing my best..)
posted by bleep at 12:22 PM on February 25, 2020 [16 favorites]


These suggestions can just as easily apply to someone who's working as an IT Professional and has moved to a new project. Sent this along to my fellow Scrum practitioners (Scrummies).
posted by endotoxin at 12:27 PM on February 25, 2020 [2 favorites]


This is phenomenal. So much of it is applicable to so many types of relationships.

- You are the voice of authority. Your words can wound.

- Attend to the symbolism of the interaction. Try to 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.

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

- Explain your thinking. Don't make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it's true. When you don't know, say "I don't know". When you're guessing, say "let's try ... because ...". Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think the problem through.

Thanks for posting this!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:28 PM on February 25, 2020 [7 favorites]


Scrummies
just.....no
posted by thelonius at 12:29 PM on February 25, 2020 [6 favorites]


Also this part:
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 every key they need to type. That's the only way they're going to learn from the interaction.
This is good advice but hard to follow nowadays when the problem they could be having with their app could be any number of things and I don't actually know how to fix it until I play around with it a little. I have a family member who gets frustrated when I'm like "Give it here I will fix it" because then she's like "I'm not an idiot, I just don't know how to do it, just tell me and I can do it" and I have to say "I really don't know how to tell you to fix it, I'm just going to click on things until it works again."
posted by bleep at 12:30 PM on February 25, 2020 [31 favorites]


Yeah -- my mother used to call me for tech support and would get frustrated that I couldn't just tell her how to fix her whatever over the phone, but my way of fixing her whatever in person would have been to search through the menus looking for settings/options/tools and then to search through the settings/options/tools to find one that looked like it would solve her problem. It's hard to scan menus over the phone on a computer you can't see running an operating system you don't use.

We've come up with a tech support working relationship that is much better for both of us in the last few years, though:

She asks my brother.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:36 PM on February 25, 2020 [12 favorites]


- Turn it off and back on again
posted by rtimmel at 12:51 PM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]


I think the first time I ever encountered this was right here on MetaFilter, almost 20 years ago, and I have always tried to keep it in mind when working with users. I've worked with people whose technical skills covered the whole spectrum of ability, and even knowledgeable users appreciate patience and directness.
posted by briank at 12:53 PM on February 25, 2020


Phil Agre! Man, I love him. Taught me that when a student was having a computer issue, to always say it must be something wrong with the computer, no matter what.
posted by nanook at 1:04 PM on February 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


I should have searched by more than the URL, which has undoubtedly changed. Here's a reference in an AskMe from 2011
posted by mecran01 at 1:05 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


Beginners face a language problem: they can't ask questions because they don't know what the words mean, they can't know what the words mean until they can successfully use the system, and they can't successfully use the system because they can't ask questions.

A good example of this is the word "screenshot". I know what it is. You know what it is. A whole lot of people don't know what it is. If you ask them to provide one, they won't know necessarily know how to do it, or even what you are asking them to do. Even if they realize that what you want is a picture of what's on their screen, it may seem so out of the normal to them that it wouldn't occur to them that major operating systems come with a function that does this already included. Even if they know how to take a screenshot, they may not know how to send it to you.

And that is how, back when I used to support users on Chowhound, I would end up with digital camera photos of people's screens that had been added into a Word document and then the Word document was attached to an email. People often don't know a lot of things about computers, but damned if they aren't sometimes ingenious about how to make them do what they want using the things they do know.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:07 PM on February 25, 2020 [30 favorites]


In addition to my other duties, I was once the IT and network support for a large metropolitan church full of priests and other clergical types. It was a lesson in patience, humility and tongue-biting...
posted by jim in austin at 1:23 PM on February 25, 2020 [2 favorites]


This is so good for certain other industries as well (e.g. public accounting). Forwarding along to coworkers who would find it of value. Not forwarding it along to the managers who find "You are the voice of authority. Your words can wound." to be a feature.
posted by avalonian at 1:25 PM on February 25, 2020 [2 favorites]


- Don’t call their Mac the company’s Playskool computer
posted by Thorzdad at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2020 [7 favorites]


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.

I spent a substantial part of my weekend helping beginners get set up on Discord.

We have all forgotten so damn much about how interfaces are horrible.

(I also spent a substantial part of my weekend telling people, "It's not you; that really is confusing; none of this is obvious; there are too many options and the instructions don't make sense; I am also sorry that all of our communication options suck.")
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2020 [12 favorites]


Something I tried to emphasize to new hires was that their ignorance of things we take for granted is a rare and valuable resource and that it was important to capture as much knowledge from their learning curve as possible. I should have asked them to keep an informal journal of their stumbling-blocks and aha! moments, but instead I tried to learn as much as possible from our daily status meetings and daily interactions.

Any good team develops a shared knowledge base which can evolve into a secret language. And that's really good in some ways but also creates a barrier to enter the group and for that group to communicate with others. It's important to identify and make explicit the implicit knowledge that a group or team has. And it's also pretty much impossible, so you can only be asymptotically successful.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:11 PM on February 25, 2020 [10 favorites]


I remember having trouble learning how to copy and paste because I was told "highlight the passage", but how can highlighting mean making the passage darker? It eventually got worked out.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:16 PM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]


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.


Wonderful stuff here, presented in an easy to read format that we could use more of. I was the default tech support guy for my late mother, and although it could be frustrating at times, I really was glad to help. And I definitely appreciated the meme she posted to Facebook to the effect of “To my children who complain about helping me with computers: remember, I thought you how to use a spoon.”

See also Ten Thousand
posted by TedW at 2:20 PM on February 25, 2020 [8 favorites]


Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers? My poor mom could benefit so much from using her laptop. But I swear she acts like she's going to break something when she reluctantly picks it up to use it. She has so many interests that she could look up online and learn about or just enjoy. But she's so fearful.

My dad is much better, but not by a huge amount. I think he still thinks of it as a list of instructions versus a thing you can screw around on.

I tell them both that nothing's gonna break. And I show them a lot of cool things available online. But there's just such a ... WALL there for them.
posted by SoberHighland at 2:31 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


This is a deeply compassionate and thoughtful document, and I'll try to make use of its suggestions the next time I have to teach someone something. Thanks for sharing it!
posted by heteronym at 2:31 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


I miss Phil.
posted by Nelson at 2:43 PM on February 25, 2020


- Don’t call their Mac the company’s Playskool computer

Reminds me of my trip home from college for Christmas in 1984. I had just bought a 128K Mac with a slew of cool peripherals (I had to borrow money from my grandparents to fund it as a college student) and because I was going to be writing papers and using it for coursework over the holiday I checked it in my baggage (yes, you used be able to check that kind of stuff and expect it to arrive safely) in a combination of its carrying case and original packaging. I had actually looked at a lot of options before settling on the Mac, so it’s not like I didn’t know what else was out there. But while waiting at baggage claim, when all my Mac stuff came down the conveyor, a guy standing a few feet down from me loudly exclaimed to his buddy “Look! A toy computer!” while pointing at my stuff. And so I learned that for some computer folks, simple=bad. (I also learned when the Fat Mac came out a few months later that it pays to be the second group of adopters for Apple products.)
posted by TedW at 2:48 PM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]


SoberHighland-- it might help to remind them that a lot of work has gone into making computers harder to break from the keyboard than they used to be. And you'l be there to help if they do break it.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2020 [3 favorites]


Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers? My poor mom could benefit so much from using her laptop. But I swear she acts like she's going to break something when she reluctantly picks it up to use it. She has so many interests that she could look up online and learn about or just enjoy. But she's so fearful.

My mother was a little bit older than yours and had some similar concerns. This despite having used both Mac OS and DOS computers in a variety of business settings over the years. But once the web/internet hit she was out of her league and had no way to discern among all the warnings about viruses and other horrible things that would happen if you hit the wrong key or clicked on the wrong link. And this is from a very confident woman who among other things helped start and later served of president of Planned Parenthood in a conservative southern town. So when I had a little time to spend with her, I had her intentionally screw up some things, then show her how to recover. This XKCD is actually pretty close to my problem solving algorithm; mom wrote the URL on a sticker and put it on her monitor.
posted by TedW at 3:10 PM on February 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


An interesting thing I learned when helping my parents with computer stuff: It's amazing how much of the computer's interface that us "computer people" simply ignore.

We know where to click and right-click, where the drop down menus are, etc. But so much of the interface? We don't even "see" it in everyday use. Someone new or learning computers sees ALL of it, all the time. And there's often quite a bit of it visible.

I use a Mac at home, but I go back and forth on PCs as well. I got my folks a MacBook Air. I try to explain that much of the time (unless it's something I routinely do all the time) I'm figuring out what to do as I go. Using my parents as an example: I think they feel they need to know the entire process around, say, composing and sending an email—before they attempt to do so. I'm not even sure if I could list every step I do when I write and send email. But my parents get this feeling of "what if I get stuck halfway through and can't remember which button to click, or where to type the address, or, or..." which just isn't the way computer people do things.

My dad has learned quite a bit. My mom? Not so much. But she doesn't like getting lost or getting stuck with anything. So she doesn't want to try.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:26 PM on February 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers?

Get them a smart phone or ipad. My parents wouldn't touch computers but now my dad knows how to text and look things up on his phone. The smartphone is the gateway computer.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:27 PM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]


Yes, my dad has become pretty damn good with his iPhone. He has an 11... I still have a 7 Plus.

Interestingly, sometimes my dad will go off on a computer project on his own and start learning quite a bit. He's sorting and organizing all his old photos, slides, etc. Sent many of them off to be scanned to jpg. He figured out gesture-stuff with texting, weird little animations and stuff I never bothered to look into.

But there's still a Wall. My non-computer brother and my dad spent a couple hours trying to get my folks' cable TV box running correctly. Some stuff just wouldn't stream correctly (they're into movies and British TV shows and my dad streams courses about history and physics). Anyway, they spent a bunch of time, couldn't figure it out. I can't even remember what the exact problem was.

I got there and they had given up. I unplugged the box, waited 30 seconds and plugged it back in. After a 5 minute reboot, the cable TV/streaming was back up and running, and I really tried to not look smug about "fixing" it.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:34 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


I want to turn this into a 37 page slide show with advertisements, just as a perverse joke.
posted by mecran01 at 3:42 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers?

Get them a smart phone or ipad. My parents wouldn't touch computers but now my dad knows how to text and look things up on his phone. The smartphone is the gateway computer.
posted by The_Vegetables at 17:27 on February 25 [+] [!]


Oh yes to the iPads. They are a wonderful gateway device or a replacement for a desktop computer, and actually become a prosthetic of sorts for aging eyes (including my own).

The elderly in my congregation all have tablets and phones and use them (wait for it) . . . religiously.
posted by mecran01 at 3:45 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


I need to use this for dealing with my husband. He is a computer consultant and knows how to fix all things Microsoft, but he becomes completely incompetent when something goes wrong with his iPhone and I come close to throwing it out the window rather than dealing with his frustration and despair.
posted by Peach at 3:51 PM on February 25, 2020


~ Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers?
~ Get them a smart phone or ipad.


An iPad, all the way. Not as cramped as a phone screen. Easier on the eyes. Great to read books on, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:00 PM on February 25, 2020


~ Anyone have tips for 78 year old parents who just show general fear of computers?

I agree with everyone about a tablet.

My mom is 71 and retired 10 years ago partially because she could no longer avoid computers. I tried for years: she does not grok mouse or touchpad as input devices, and is utterly befuddled by the concept of a 'cursor'. She would get lost in the confusion of windows and applications "what is happening, where am I, my gmail is gone" "no mom you just closed the browser"

But a touch screen that only displays one active app at a time makes perfect sense to her. She bought herself a kindle fire when they were new and I think just bought her fourth last month (the batteries die eventually).
posted by buildmyworld at 4:23 PM on February 25, 2020 [2 favorites]


"Pick something from the menu" used to be a good starting point, except now they're hiding the menus too well.

Now my phone tech support sounds like, "Is there something that looks like three lines? How about three dots? How about if you use the mouse to move the arrow to every different part of the screen and wait a second to see if a menu appears?"
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:32 PM on February 25, 2020 [11 favorites]


I help people with computers at the library all day long. Teaching computer skills is the one class my grad program does not offer that would have been the most useful. Magically guessing people's passwords would be a good skill to have, too, since 85% of the time a lost password is what is preventing the patron from getting something done. Nowadays people just thrust their phone at me and wait for me to do what they want and aren't interested in learning any more. Anyway, thanks for posting. I will share with my colleagues.
posted by Biblio at 4:42 PM on February 25, 2020 [5 favorites]


Nowadays people just thrust their phone at me and wait for me to do what they want and aren't interested in learning any more. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. My public computer users aren't there to learn to use a PC; they want to get specific things done. They are tired and stressed and overwhelmed by the learning curve (and the language problem, the typing-with-arthritic-fingers problem, the "everyone around me is doing this easily" problem, the bad interface problem, the sluggish internet problem) and the actual problem they are trying to solve. I try to remember that this feels like a lot to overcome. One of my non-computer-using patrons has to use them to do the same tasks every week, so I made a step-by-step list for her. Every week, she takes it out of her wallet and unfolds it, and every week she calls me over for help. Bu you know what? It's a different problem each time! She is getting the hang of what she has to do. Another patron is in a similar situation, and no matter how many times I write things down, he just...wants me to do it for him. He doesn't want to learn. "Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves" is trickier to execute than it seems.

We have all forgotten so damn much about how interfaces are horrible. Auto-filter, exactly. Adaptation to the point where you no longer see the wonkiness because you automatically work around it.

My favorite by far: "The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has a different set of skills." I owe so much to the people who have let me help, trusting me enough to put a task in my hands and talking me through it. My fundamental orientation is to building skills, and it's amazing how much people will teach if asked. (But yes: it really does make a difference when people want to learn a skill set to solve their problem rather than only wanting a problem solved.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 PM on February 25, 2020 [8 favorites]


This is all good advice.

Problem is, I am not an IT specialist and my 80 year old parents are not my clients. And you know what? There were literally hundreds of times that they didn't have the patience to teach me about relationships and emotional intelligence or indulge my interests in music or culture or politics, so why is it my responsibility to help them organize their vacation photos or show them how to Skype?

I recognized early on that my angst with how they handled internet security or the fact that they spent hours doing something that should take minutes was really about me being too busy with other Important Things for two people who were too busy with their own Important Things to help me when I needed them. They can go to Best Buy and listen to the Geek Squad for advice they need the same way I went to my Walkman to listen to the Dead Kennedys for advice I needed.

I've literally migrated operating systems to avoid being their IT person. At first, it was like, "Oh, sorry, I only know how this works on a Mac. I can't help you." Now I'm back to Windows, even though I can handle anything on iOS, I'm still like "Oh, it's been forever since I used an iPad, have you tried Googling?"

Yeah, I am bitter and have issues. But I am much more helpful teaching both computers and life skills with my own children.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:53 PM on February 25, 2020 [10 favorites]


My poor mom could benefit so much from using her laptop. But I swear she acts like she's going to break something when she reluctantly picks it up to use it.

To be fair, even though she's unlikely to break the hardware or the programs or operating system, she's far from unlikely to unknowingly install malware or fall for some fun internet scams or believe everything she reads online or get her credit card information stolen.

There are some setups that can reduce some of those concerns (ad blocking, choice of operating system) but overall the internet is legitimately a risky space even for experienced users.
posted by trig at 2:06 AM on February 26, 2020 [1 favorite]


Also this part:
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 every key they need to type. That's the only way they're going to learn from the interaction.
This is good advice but hard to follow nowadays when the problem they could be having with their app could be any number of things and I don't actually know how to fix it until I play around with it a little. I have a family member who gets frustrated when I'm like "Give it here I will fix it" because then she's like "I'm not an idiot, I just don't know how to do it, just tell me and I can do it" and I have to say "I really don't know how to tell you to fix it, I'm just going to click on things until it works again."


This is where the other advice, to say when you don't know something, comes into play. "I don't know what is wrong with it yet. I need to poke around to find out first, and figure out what to tell you about what is wrong and how to fix it, before I can tell you what is wrong and how to fix it." Supplemented with, "here are some of the things I'm trying in my troubleshooting process."

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that if we're not experts in something ourselves (like me trying to help friends with computer problems, for example), then explaining. what we are doing, as we are doing it or beforehand is hard. Why did I check that particular thing? I dunno, 'cause it was a thing that I could check and knew how to check? Then you run into people's expectations that you will, in fact, be an expert - when the person you are helping gets frustrated or upset with you for not appearing confident enough or for accurately expressing when you don't know something, that adds a layer of difficulty. Which brings us to

Problem is, I am not an IT specialist and my 80 year old parents are not my clients. And you know what? There were literally hundreds of times that they didn't have the patience to teach me about relationships and emotional intelligence or indulge my interests in music or culture or politics, so why is it my responsibility to help them organize their vacation photos or show them how to Skype?

Yeah, sometimes it's not your responsibility, and it's okay to say no.
posted by eviemath at 7:28 AM on February 26, 2020 [2 favorites]


So when I had a little time to spend with her, I had her intentionally screw up some things, then show her how to recover.

This is so important. I seem to recall that it was a basic principle of classic UX design that you always make it easy for the user to undo anything, because that's how users gain the confidence to experiment and learn. I always thought that one of the best design choices in Kid Pix was making the undo button so fun to push, because it encouraged kids to undo things purely for its own sake, and thus naturally develop an intuition for what "undoing" meant. We seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the past few decades; undoing seems to be nearly impossible for most actions on a smartphone, despite the ubiquity of the "Back" button.

Taking this idea further, I think that computer mastery requires that one be willing and able to solve problems one has never seen before. If something goes wrong with your computer, chances are you're not going to understand what's happening at first, so you have to know how to find the right information to diagnose the problem before you can even begin to fix it. That's not how we usually interact with machines day-to-day. The only thing that comes close to computers in this regard is cars, and even then, most of us don't try to fix them ourselves, and for those who do, there's usually an exhaustive repair manual that will tell you what to do. With computers, there's no safety net.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 11:18 AM on February 26, 2020 [3 favorites]


MonkeyToes: "Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves" is trickier to execute than it seems.

My favorite by far: "The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has a different set of skills."

A very good point. Almost everything I know about computers came from steep learning curves around trying to understand other people's systems and how they didn't quite work the way they were supposed to. At least we have better manuals online today.
posted by sneebler at 1:18 PM on February 26, 2020


You could do a lot of support for parents if you look into some remote desktop sharing technology. Click that icon, when the box pops up click Accept, now watch me poke around, OK here's how you do it.

But it is much easier to tell them to talk to sisters or their kids.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:32 PM on February 26, 2020


And that is how, back when I used to support users on Chowhound, I would end up with digital camera photos of people's screens that had been added into a Word document and then the Word document was attached to an email.
Learning to view the Word attachments I receive as examples of constrained problem-solving sounds like a very good idea.

A while back I was helping a family member set up backups of their computer and we were looking through which directories to exclude. I was puzzled that they had something like 7000 draft email messages taking up a significant part of their hard-drive. I assumed something very weird was happening in their email program.

Instead, it was just that any time they wanted to write something down for themselves or save an image, they created a new message, wrote or copied it into the email body (while saved files as attachments automatically), and then hit the "save to draft" button to make the message go away until they searched for it again. It worked. It was searchable. It didn't require learning a whole second tool. I had to admit it probably was better than my system of thousands of text files with poorly chosen names in an only slightly coherent directory structure.

Interesting piece. I'd never seen it before. Thanks! I'm still pretty terrible at talking to people about not being afraid to poke around and try things. "How did you know that menu was there? I thought you'd never used this before" is a hard question to answer in a way that's not discouraging.
posted by eotvos at 2:27 PM on February 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


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