20 year old advice on helping people with computers is still relevant todayOn August 11, 2017 by Kenna
Phil Agre’s 1996 article “How to help someone use a computer” is full of eternal verities that hold up today: it starts with a section on putting yourself in the mindset of someone who’s struggling with something you know how to do already (“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”) and then moves on to practical tips for turning that empathy into successful advice (“Try not to ask yes-or-no questions. Nobody wants to look foolish, so their answer is likely to be a guess. ‘Did you attach to the file server?’ will get you less information than ‘What did you do after you turned the computer on?’.”)
By the time they ask you for help, they’ve probably tried several things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.
They might be afraid that you’re going to blame them for the problem.
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.
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.
How to help someone use a computer.
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