How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre

image of two women looking at soimething in front of on older mainframe. Black and white image

 

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.

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. 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.
  • 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 like you.
  • 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. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface. 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.
  • Formulate a take-home lesson.
  • Take a long-term view. Who do users in this community get help from? If you focus on building that person’s skills, the skills will diffuse outward to everyone else.
  • 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.)

Originally from The Network Observer. Copyright 1996 by Phil Agre. You can forward it to anyone for any noncommercial purpose.

2 comments for “How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre

  1. Ian Linkletter
    04Feb19 at 12:16

    Thanks so much for mirroring this. There were some things I read in library school that became a part of me, and this was one. Glad it has a safe home.

  2. Malvina
    24Feb19 at 1:09

    This is solid information. The first time I taught a computer class I had my eyes opened. I started with, ‘let’s turn on the computers. ‘ A few people did not know how to turn them on. My next mistake was ‘click on the browser. ‘ I didn’t understand that some folks didn’t know how to click or know what a browser is. Sometimes when we are so comfortable with something we forget that we have experience that others don’t have.

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