An exercise in learning, and humility
There’s an interesting discussion going on at MetaFilter about confused Internet users and the mistakes they make. It’s full of laughs and full of arguments about iPads and Google and UX work, but one comment stood out to me:
"...How hard is it to understand what a browser is and what a URL is and how to use a search engine?"
The answer, in my opinion, is “Really, really really hard.” The problem isn’t that those individual things are tough to tell apart, or that a “menu” is inherently confusing or that it takes too many steps to copy a folder from one disk to another or anything like that.
The problem, at the end of the day, is that learning to use a computer is something like learning a complex new language. There there are thousands of little things to learn that are both subtle and irrelevant. Irrelevant, that is, until the moment they’re important. And at just that moment, the fact that think a “Bookmark” and a “URL” are the same thing will cause you a world of pain.
The longer we spend with computers, the more difficult it is to capture that “beginner’s mind” when communicating with others. One exercise that I’ve found useful is the simple act of writing out an explanation of a computer-related concept. That sounds easy, but there’s a twist: if your explanation refers to other computer-related concepts, you have to explain them, as well. In addition, if your explanation glosses over important distinctions that could confuse the listener later, you have to note it.
“A web browser is a program that lets you look at information on other computers around the world.”
What kind of information? (“Well, technically HTML files…”) Can a web browser look at movies? (“Sure, as long as you have a plugin–”) Wait, what’s a “plugin?” (“It’s another program that plays movies inside the browser.”) My nephew told me Youtube doesn’t need that. (“Only if you’re in the HTML5 beta!”) I don’t think I am. Can other people look at information on my computer with a browser? (“No.”) My nephew said I could look at his computer with it. (“Oh, well, he might have a server on his.”) What’s a server? (“Do you mean a computer that’s a server, or a program that’s a server?”)
You can see where that’s headed. The closest most computer experts get to this kind of disorientation is when they learn a new language, framework, or toolset. All of their old mental models turn to baggage, and they have to carefully feel out every answer for hidden assumptions.
The idea behind the exercise isn’t to follow an infinitely deep rabbit hole while writing a simple explanation. Often, quick summaries are useful because they give people some important mental anchors. The important part is to remember just how immense the cloud of supporting ideas is – and to have patience when talking to people who haven’t yet absorbed enough to know what they need to know.</em