I’ve told my share of “dumb user” stories. Whiteout-on-the-screen is a popular entry. I’m fond of the using-a-bulk-tape-eraser-as-a-diskette-bookend story. My all-time favorite has the punch line, “Well, your first problem is, that’s not a modem, it’s an answering machine.”

You don’t hear as many “dumb IS analyst” stories. Here’s one: “We don’t have time to do it for you, and we won’t give you the tools to do it yourself.” Another favorite: “I don’t care if you’ve solved your business problem – your data model isn’t in third normal form!”

The all-time classic goes like this: “No I haven’t been on the factory floor. Why would I want to do that?”

This New Year I resolved to eschew dumb-user stories altogether. They have too much in common with ethnic humor – even if the gag is funny, it’s generally in poor taste, and ties your thinking into stupid stereotypes.

For example (you were wondering when I’d get to the actual topic, weren’t you?) it renders computer training programs completely ineffective. Start with a dumb-user premise and you’ll design boring, basic, pointless computer classes that convey so little information that attendees wander away muttering about their wasted time.

When you’re teaching (and I’ve done a fair amount of it in my career) your audience believes what you tell them. Tell your class that computers are complicated and they’ll believe you. If, on the other hand, you tell them the truth – that computers greatly simplify many complex tasks – they’ll believe that instead.

How has the myth arisen that computers are hard to use? I hosted an InfoWorld Electric Forum on this subject awhile back, and the consensus was remarkable. Computers have become increasingly hard to setup and maintain, in lockstep with a trend towards extraordinary ease of use. In this they have a lot in common with automobiles. Very few of us have the specialized knowledge needed to even tune a modern engine. Driving, however, has become easier: push on the gas to go, push on the brake to stop, turn the wheel to steer. Cars no longer have the manual chokes, standard transmissions, or crank ignitions that used to complicate learning to drive.

Hmmm … push and steer. Sounds a lot like “point and click” doesn’t it?

Computers seem hard to use for two basic reasons. We’ll address one of them this week, and save the other.

Computers make such a huge number of different things easy to do that just keeping track of them all is daunting. Want to change fonts? Easy. Bullets and numbering? Easy. Standard deviations? Same answer. And on and on and on.

In fact, computers and the Internet have this in common – the hardest part of using them is finding what you’re looking for among all the other stuff. The actual operation is simple. And even here, there are so many different routes to each operation (menus, button bars, the right mouse button) that you can generally figure things out without much difficulty.

When you teach, emphasized that every single task is easy, and establish three goals for every class: (1) Make sure to clarify the concepts (folders are like their paper equivalents – you use them to organize your files). (2) Help everyone succeed in the actual operation a few times, so they knew they’re capable of it. (3) Make sure everyone knows how to look for the functions they needed, so they have the confidence to poke around among the menus.

And give them a bit of great advice: For each project, add precisely one new technique to their bags o’ tricks. (In a very short period of time, they’ll master an awesome assortment of skills with very low stress.)

This teaching style will go along way to making your end-users self-sufficient. Of course, there’s a downside to all of this: you’ll have far fewer dumb-user stories to swap with your friends.