From a friend’s email: My parent has become increasingly befuddled by things in older age, especially computers. I think the main problem is that everything offers way too much functionality, and they find it overwhelming and confusing. They are definitely confused by things updating and changing layouts and such. But they are also confused by long-standing things like tabs and new windows – when I went to help sort their laptop recently I found 78 Safari windows active, all opened to the same Yahoo Mail account. They had no idea. Are there any tools that you know of (hopefully for Mac) that maybe “simplify” things somehow? Or maybe an entirely different OS?
I feel like the Mac is usually the best option for older people if they want to use a computer and not a tablet. Tablets do solve some of these issues, but cause other ones. At the same time, I agree, I see my landlady’s computer like this all the time. And part of it is… maybe it’s okay to have it be weird?
One of the things I’ve been trying to get my landlady to do is turn the computer off every night. And then I set up her browser to not open all the old tabs (one of the culprits) and just open to her email. So when she opens it that day, there’s only so messed up it can get before she turns it off again and then… new start. And I think part of it all is that some people are just more… derailed by things. And so some of it is just “Well things change a lot, you do not have to like it (I sure don’t) but lets’ figure out how to get you to your email….” that sort of thing. Sometimes you have to let yourself be comfortable with someone else’s discomfort and just step them through how to get where they want to be.
Some people have found it easier to just get their email delivered via Mac’s Mail program. I think it creates more problems than it solves, honestly but it’s an option. But yeah, I have some people who
have been coming to drop-in time for over a decade and no matter what new tech they get they always sort of…. fail to learn how it works and then bitch or whine that it’s hard. Which, hey, those feelings are real and I can sympathize with them. But also realize that for whatever reason, absent any mental health issues, this is the way they are choosing to interact with it. There are some great “Missing manual” books for the Mac that can help explain things. But this is only good for people who are okay deputizing themselves to learn this stuff. The line I use a lot lately is: there are some people who demand lists when we try to give them flow charts. And you can’t learn to effectively operate a computer with a list, not anymore.
It might be helpful to hook them up with a local person who could swing by once a month and make sure stuff was basically working. I don’t know if you do this job but I feel like this is a great niche type job. One hour tune-ups. Don’t cost a lot but just swoop in, do software updates, make sure nothing is out of control, Flash is working nothing sketchy is going on, swoop out. If there’s a local senior center and/or library and they use a laptop, that can be a good place to send them. Otherwise, setting up Skype or Facetime to do desktop sharing and you can swoop in yourself to help with some of this. It’s always hardest with parent/kids. I always thought a good idea would be for people to ‘trade parents” with each other and like, I would have your parent with stuff and you could help my mom (RIP) with her stuff.
Note: This list, written in 1996 by Phil Agre is the best advice I can give people who are helping novice users with computer issues. Phil Agre was a visionary technologist and this list was up on his website forever but has been up and down lately so I am reprinting it.
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. This is natural.
- 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.
Continue reading “How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre”
Here is a post talking about how Drop-In Time functions. Now I’ll talk about a recent addition: my intern.
From the mailbag: I love your tech drop-in tweets. They’ve inspired me to get outside of my comfort zone in troubleshooting and helping patrons with their technology. I have reached out to my local high school about getting a student to help me run a drop-in time. My contact at the school has asked for a job description for the student and I’m wondering if you have any advice on specific skills I should list? (e.g. I know I am pretty hopeless when it comes to Macs so it would be very good to have someone who could fill that gap.) Also, I think you mentioned that your program is grant funded? May I ask if you pay your student assistant? and if so, ballpark $? I would love to hear any other advice that you have. Maybe I should just take a field trip to one of your drop-ins for the in-person rather than tweeted experience!
Now this is a question near and dear to me because I give the stink-eye to “for the experience!” unpaid internships for adults or college kids but when a kid is supposed to do community service as part of school, it seems odd to make that a job. So E and I had a compromise. He could keep an erratic schedule and show up when he felt like it and I’d treat it like an unpaid internship. Once he was a regular part of drop-in time (which I am hoping will happen this year), we’ll find a way to reimburse him. And, luckily, I had a short-lived job this summer where I wound up with an extra nice laptop. So that is going to be his payment for this year. Here’s the rest of my response email. Continue reading “Ask A Librarian: How do you get/pay your intern?”
(this is a slightly amended reprint of an article I wrote for Computers in Libraries magazine in 2016 and I’m putting it here because it’s timely. Original title: Practical Technology – Digital Privacy is Important Too. If something seems inaccurate, let me know.)
This month’s column is amplifying the signal on a movement that has been brewing in the library world: getting libraries to make patron’s digital activities as secure as their lending records. There are a few ways to do this but I’m going to focus on using HTTPS. Continue reading “Sensible talk about HTTPS”
[this is a transcript of an email I sent to someone doing cybersecurity+libraries research]
There are two ways in which libraries could be doing a lot better in the realm of cybersecurity. And I should note, I work for rural libraries and digitally divided patrons for the most part so a lot of my ideas are on human scale but there are a lot of good ideas in the larger scale about just encrypting and anonymizing data but they’re sort of the same as they would be for any big business.
1. Being better at patron privacy re: cybersecurity. So if we offer patron privacy in terms of what they’re reading (and we do, in the US this is a big deal) why don’t we go to more trouble to help their patrons’ browsing experiences be more secure (https, Tor, encrypted wifi, who knows….)? The answer is boring: money. But it’s a useful concern and one that library leadership (professional organizations etc.) could be doing a HELL of a lot better at. Also pushing vendors (since we buy a lot of b2b software) to offer safer tools. We still have vendors who will email you a password in plaintext. Those vendors should not be getting money by anyone and it’s just a highlight of how little we understand. Like, you’d never buy a car without seatbelts (and, well, can’t) so why are these people still in business?
2. Being better at raising awareness of cybersecurity issues and communicating that to our patrons. So “talking the walk” if you will. This line is trickier because at some level if a patron says “I don’t really care about privacy…” it becomes a challenge to figure out what to do. Do you try to “incent” them to get more serious about it, or do you just realize there are a lot of different ways to be human? I think there are a lot of smart people in the Open Source world who sort of shot themselves in the foot being OS purists and people couldn’t get on board if the only way you could support free software was go ALL IN with OS tools. The same with cybersecurity and privacy, we have to find ways to allow people to twiddle the knobs for themselves. They want to use facebook, but do it safely. Do we have something to offer them?
THAT said I think we need, as a profession, to become a lot more aware of what threats really look like and who we’re really in danger from (imo, it’s more government and advertisers and not what we’ve traditionally thought of as “bad guys”) and having our own way to frame the narrative so that the library is part of that conversation and can help people understand the issues. You read “old media” and you get the feeling that a lot of them don’t really understand the problem (and TV news, my god) so it’s no wonder people who are of average computer intelligence can’t figure it out better. We need to provide options and sensible information to those people not just more FUD.