How to Help Someone use a Computer

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Re: How to Help Someone use a Computer

#41 Post by Onsemeliot »

I have the impression we are talking about different target groups here. The people I have in mind will never try to tweak anything with their system as long as they are somehow able to deal with what they have. Even if they consider the situation they are in to be deeply annoying they will go along because they couldn't be bothered to even think about any better solution. They are afraid of change on their system because it could force them to figure out new ways of doing things. And they are not in any way interested in that. They just want things to get done without the need to spend any thought on the tools they are using. Every consideration of how to interact with their computer would be a very unwanted distraction they want to avoid in the first place.

This is the typical computer user I have in mind. You will rarely find those on internet forums like And if you do, they are constantly annoyed. To my knowledge this is by far the biggest group of computer users out there. My vision is to supply them with a free software solution that makes them happier than what they are using right now. And I actually have the impression this is possible. We just need an other approach.

Professional support for private computer users is just to expensive. It isn't sensible because it is to much work to deal with the involved complexity. The possible hardware, software and administration history variation is just to big. The way to go seems to be a standardised system on a standardised device that customers can get pre-installed with the apps they personally need with even an introduction on how to use it. They would get 24/7 remote support instead of administrative privileges and in complicated cases (or when the hardware fails) they could get a replacement device delivered with the automatic backup from last night. Of course this solution would use full disc encryption, encrypted server backups and even setting up GnuGPG by default.
Something like that could be done by a normal company. But a decentralised community of certified supporters around a standardised technical solution would be more reliable, inclusive and it would provide countless local free software enthusiasts around the globe with an opportunity for a stable income.
The most difficult part might be a communication problem: Why can't customers use random appliances, proprietary tools and DRM content on such systems? If it was possible to get the good reasons for this across the computer world could become a much better place. Things like Edward Snowdens book Permanent Record might help in some cases.
LE_746F6D617A7A69 wrote:this is not a rocket-science
You probably don't know how much you know. If you can't get your stick to boot because you don't even know that you need to care for the right UEFI settings you have no clue how to even access or because you have obscure hardware that doesn't even allow you to change the boot configuration things get to tricky for the average desktop user quickly. If you aren't interested in computers such things are just dreadful. The laptop should just work. Most users wouldn't bother asking any questions on forums if they didn't feel the need to do so. In my experience most such users just ask the next best person they consider to be better versed with such "annoying computer crap" for help. And that most of the time is someone who will know just enough to get at least a little further by using Windows. And the user in need will gladly accept the chance to not be confronted with a new operating system.
cuckooflew wrote:Gnome was doing a good job at getting unfreindly, I really could not find the terminal
I don't consider myself to be a fanboy. GNOME has indeed left behind the way things are done on most other desktops. But I mostly prefer it that way. The few shortcuts I need are easy for me to remember and I enjoy using the default keyboard commands instead of having to click through menus. (If I would want them I could still have them. I included an application menu top panel extension but I actually never use it because it is easier for me to just hit the super key and start typing the application name.) But the best thing about it is that the UI is very lean and it so far has never left me without the features I do actually want in any given situation. Most of the time I work without seeing any panels. (I admit that I use a few add-ons to actually get, what I want.) But then I can use the whole screen for the application I am working with without the need to actually use an other more limited window manager which would take away many things I do actually like to have available. I am indeed surprised that many distributions made GNOME the default because it truly enforces a different way to interact with the desktop. And that surely is a bummer if you have no reason the learn a new usability concept. For me it was worth the little effort because I love the minimalistic and (in my eyes) beautiful design. And it has gotten a lot faster in more recent versions also. The odd thing is that to me GNOME feels closer to LXDE than any other desktop I have tried. And I like LXDE for its simplicity. Unfortunately it looks like it won't be around much longer. And GNOME adds some features I can't have in LXDE. But on weaker hardware I usually go for LXDE.

But all that is a different subject that surely has been discussed in detail already.
Last edited by Onsemeliot on 2020-08-13 03:57, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: How to Help Someone use a Computer

#42 Post by cuckooflew »

Yes , you are right on that it is a different topic.
Harold wrote: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.)
This is well said, and pretty well sums it up, I am not going to try adding to it any more. No need to make it harder or more complicated for those that do try to help.
Please Read What we expect you have already Done
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