When I lived in Washington DC I wanted to write a book about a Russian invasion. Troops and tanks surround the city, then enter to take the capital.
Eight weeks later, exhausted, out of fuel, low on rations and hopelessly lost, the Russians surrender.
The Washington street system is ridiculously complicated, even if you ignore the potential confusion between I Street and Eye Street. There are those who think PCs also are far too complicated.
A few months back I wrote about one reason PCs seem hard to use: no matter how simple each function may be, PCs provide so much capability that just keeping track of all the different easy things you can do is tough. People gripe about this when they talk about “feature bloat” – a ridiculous complaint, equivalent to griping about the menu at a Chinese restaurant because all the choices make it hard to decide what to eat.
PCs seem complicated for a second, more subtle reason: they seem complicated because they simplify tasks that are intrinsically complex.
Yes, that’s right. The PC’s ability to simplify complex tasks makes them seem hard to use. What’s really going on is that the PC reveals our own lack of knowledge.
I learned this a long time ago training end-users in Lotus 1-2-3, back when DOS was king and the Xerox Star ran the world’s first GUI (but nobody cared). “Here’s how you calculate a percent,” I’d explain. “What’s a percent?” someone in the class would inevitably ask.
So I’d explain percentages, but I knew most of the students left figuring Lotus was just too hard to learn. They were wrong, of course. The software had nothing to do with their ignorance of basic arithmetic.
This problem recurs in every software category. Electronic spreadsheets make mathematical modeling relatively easy. They don’t, however, make mathematics easy – mathematics and mathematical modeling are intrinsically hard.
Word processors make the mechanics of document creation and formatting pretty simple. They don’t, however, simplify the fundamental process of organizing thoughts and translating them into coherent explanations.
End-user databases highlight this even more: Access, Paradox and Approach all make it easy to define databases, create entry screens, and format reports. They don’t, however, teach you the business problem you’re trying to solve, redesign processes to take advantage of automation, or create third-normal-form data designs.
Don’t think of this as an overwhelming problem that makes end-user education impossible. Think of it as your new design specification for your PC training program.
Create two parallel curricula. One, for end-users who know the subject, teaches the mechanics of the software. The other teaches business skills using the PC.
Here’s your new course list:
- Basic Business Writing using MS Word: Memos and Letters
- Advanced Business Writing using MS Word: Reports and White Papers
- Business Math using Quattro Pro: The Basics
- Business Math using Quattro Pro: Introduction to Mathematical Modeling
- Introduction to Data Design using Paradox
- Business Automation using Paradox
- Creating Efficient Work Processes using Lotus Notes
- …Get the idea?
Don’t, by the way, fall into the “snooty waitron” trap (“Sorry, that’s not my table.”) Far too many companies artificially divide employee knowledge into technical skills and business skills, with separate training organizations for each. You only have two choices: either help end-users succeed, or teach irrelevant material.
Listen closely when end-users have trouble using their computers. If they aren’t complaining about an installation problem (not an ease-of-use issue at all) you’ll find every complaint falls into one of two categories. Your end-users may be complaining because they can’t find a feature, or don’t know to look for the feature in the first place. Emphasize how to find features, and create “cheat sheets” built around common end-user tasks rather than the software menus.
Or their task may be intrinsically complex – a tax-adjusted return-on-investment analysis, for example. Build a subject-based curriculum like the one just outlined.
Build your training programs to solve these problems and you’re far more likely to deliver real value.