How to Help Someone use a Computer

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How to Help Someone use a Computer

Postby Harold » 2006-08-20 02:18

Phil Agre --

Computer people are fine human beings, but they do a lot of harm in the ways they "help" other people with their computer problems. Now that we're trying to get everyone online, 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, but this can only happen slowly -- and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.
  • 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.
  • You are the voice of authority. Your words can wound.
  • Computers often present their users with textual messages, but the users often don't read them.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 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?
  • Maybe they can't tell you what they've done or what happened. In this case you can ask them what they are trying to do and say, "Show me how you do that".
  • 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.
  • When they do something wrong, don't say "no" or "that's wrong". They'll often respond by doing something else that's wrong. Instead, just tell them what to do and why.
  • 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?".
  • 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.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is. "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 try such-and-such"), check once again that you're using language of the right degree of abstraction for this user right now.
  • Tell them to really read the messages, such as errors, that the computer generates.
  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer. Then keep on blaming 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 bad design. 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.
  • 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 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 knew that.)
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Postby Debianarchist » 2007-05-27 21:21

Nicely put, and should be stickied ...... at the beginning, 'helpful' folks would commandeer my computer and by the time they finished I didnt know what had happened, why my resolution was changed, and why, in many cases, the help i got ended up further breaking the app or situation in general.......

Teaching requires more than knowledge, it requires skill and patience and an ability to communicate.....not just talk at folks....

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Postby chrismortimore » 2007-05-27 22:08

Debianarchist wrote:Nicely put, and should be stickied
Dude, it is. Has been for a while.
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Postby edbarx » 2008-04-08 08:37

There is a very effective way of teaching computers to willing individuals. This is to identify the key concepts required, teach them and let the individual continue with the learning on his/her own. Then, in case the learner finds an insurmountable problem, he/she may ask again.

I found the above method extraordinarily effective.
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Postby Cheese Roller » 2008-05-05 20:33

I know what it's like to be a beginner because I get into new things all the time. Nobody truly forgets that.
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Postby BioTube » 2008-05-18 21:43

I grew up with 95/98, so I had CLI experience with DOS. This have lead me to develop the (admittedly bad)habit of not understanding why people hate the CLI. Intellectually, I know it's Microsoft's fault, but I can't help but blame them a little bit on the inside.
Ludwig von Mises wrote:The elite should be supreme by virtue of persuasion, not by the assistance of firing squads.
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Great topic!

Postby Darkwingduck » 2008-07-14 15:17

This is great!, this is really good for somebody who must teach thing onto other new users, i will keep reading this and pratice it untill my mom kown how to use a computer without my help ^^(she atually can, but she aint confident)
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Great Thread!!

Postby Scorpius Maximus » 2008-10-01 23:08

Great Thread! Too bad not everyone in this forum has read this or taken this up as their philosophy.
I have been, effectively, run out of Debian due to the rudeness and condescension of a few of those replying to my requests for help.
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Postby netskyon » 2009-01-12 01:50

Basically awesome o_o I wanna be teacher in some high-school here, they have computing courses, and sometimes I have to help my mother with her computer, and those "rules" are the right to follow to teach someone. I liked specially the beggining

- 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.

People not always know how to put theirselves on others place = \ (even me, sometimes. But I try to learn to do it ^^)
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Postby Scorpius Maximus » 2009-01-12 15:13

Hello netskyon.
You are right on.
It sounds like you have a great start on dealing with people. This thread "How to help.." has been lost on many in this forum but it is a good thread with great advice for not only those in a computer forum but also in general.
A little compassion and understanding goes a long way with someone who is already frustrated with problems.
I aproach life with a different pholosophy than most of those that responded to my threads.
I don't really mean to be so critical of those in this forum. Many are very knowledgeable and have answers but their egos get in their way. There are a few that are top notch and more down to earth but you have to go through a LOT that just want to chew you up and spit you out before you find someone that will help you on your level.
Good luck with your teaching. Very admirable!
The secret to personal greatness is serving others. Zig Ziggler
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Re: How to Help Someone use a Computer

Postby mauser1891 » 2009-06-19 15:38

Hello Folks,

An impressive post.
I was wondering if I could copy that post to my forum? I am working on my own skills as a site/forum admin.
I have just posted a bunch of links to various linux forums where people can get the assistance they need.
I have a link to this forum also. Generally, I have notice that some people will post a question before they do a search for the answer.
Thus I try to give the best assistance that I can for question's posted @ Yahoo Answer's. :D
Though somebody has already posted, and has gotten their 'problem' resolved already in places such as this with excellent results.
So far I have gotten better at providing a assistance, and/or a finding a link to a site where they have solutions.
Thank You,

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Re: How to Help Someone use a Computer

Postby fguy » 2009-09-04 14:54

Good post. As for letting them take the keyboard, well yes and no. Watching someone do all the steps can be helpful, then maybe you can say "OK, now you try it".

I try to instill confidence, and let them know they are the master. My mother who lives in another city got her first computer when she was well into her 50s, and she was really scared she'd mess things up. So I just said "go to town, this is just a pile of plastic and metal. The worst thing that can happen is that I have to come up and re-install everything, and I don't mind that. Well guess what, I didn't have to do that anyways, and now at 70 she keeps my Dad's computer working and solves problems for her friends too.

Problem is, now she knows too much. When I had to stay with them for a while, she kept insisting my Linux box must have messed up the house network.
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Postby racepres » 2009-10-25 23:02

Cheese Roller wrote:I know what it's like to be a beginner because I get into new things all the time. Nobody truly forgets that.

Nicely said!! Some "experts" should try "new" stuff sometimes, I think
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Re: How to Help Someone use a Computer

Postby mauser1891 » 2010-05-18 11:19

Hello again...

I was wondering if helping somebody with their very first install of Debian over the telephone qualifies?
And that I know enough to get myself into my own troubles with Debian... :lol:
I did a crash course on installing a gui via apt-get
Lucky for me I didn't bork the network settings, which I have to re-read at times since my memory is faulty and needs to be replaced.
I should say that I am starting to have fun transcoding multimedia audio files via scripts.
I have to leave myself reference notes... htf did I do that again..?!?

Best way for me to help, is to remember that I too once had a 386/33 DOS & Windows 3.1
Thank You,

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Re: Re:

Postby phenest » 2011-03-19 10:01

I think there is one thing missing from the OP's post: patience. I consider myself an expert with computers (30 years now), and am completely self taught (albeit with the aid of manuals, magazines, or the internet). I have a great deal of patience generally, but not enough for teaching/helping. I just tend to do it myself, and have them watch while I do it step by step and have them take written notes. They can then have a go themselves next time using their notes. I do try an explain any jargon I use, and encourage them to use it too, which can help them explain their problems in the future.

When I started with Linux 5 years ago, I found bash scripts to be my greatest teaching aid. I could store tit bits I found on the internet, put them in bash scripts and put in plenty of comments as a reminder of what does what. Either that or putting notes into plain text files. It's kinda like building your own manual.
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