This is the real nitty-gritty of it all. The whole business of “learning to use the computer” – like, 99% of it – boils down to learning to use specific, individual applications.

So. You want to be able to do anything with your computer, right? Per the previous pages, you’ve thought out specifically what you want to do. You’ve figured out what application(s) you’ll need for the job. All that’s left is to learn how to use those applications!

Which is easy enough to say, sure. But how about actually doing it? Isn’t that a lot to learn?

Well, it’s obviously much too big a topic to cover in detail on this page. Each application is its own unique topic to learn. Some are as simple as can be. An application that just mimics a handheld calculator? You’ll be using that in seconds. A simple text editor? A few minutes of instruction (or even solo poking about) should get you going.

On the other hand, some applications are amazingly complex, with tons of features to learn. Using and mastering a single highly complex application, like the high-end applications used in graphic or video editing work, can be a career in itself.

The applications you’ll probably want to use, though, are probably easy to learn. While I can’t teach any specific application on this page, I can say a few words about learning applications in general.

A little at a time does it

You don’t need to know all the techniques and secrets of your MegaWriter Plus word processor application before you can use it. You just need to know enough to get going. Don’t be scared of it; dive in!

As discussed a few pages back, you don’t need to know everything, just how to find things out. Your application probably offers tons of resources to teach you what you need to know: a Help function, a manual, online FAQ pages, online support pages and forums, and so on (see the above linked page again for more ideas on sources of info). Again, just dive into those resources and learn as much as you need to know.

Unfortunately, some applications do suffer from a lack of documentation or other features to help you learn. You may need to put your head together with someone who can help, or undertake some trial and error. (The “experts” do a lot more of that than you might think! “Just poke around” is perhaps the biggest secret weapon of the “experts”.)

But fortunately for you, nearly every application contains a HUGE built-in source of aid that instantly makes everything so much easier to figure out and use. Something that every happy, capable computer user knows well. Something right in front of your eyes but which – somehow – many struggling beginners fail to ever really see. Say hello to your new, instant best friend:

It’s all about the menus

Nearly every application you use will contain a handful of menus. Depending on your computer’s operating system (and maybe on the application), the menus may appear within the window(s) the application creates on the screen, or may appear at the top of the screen. Either way, they let you and the application quickly do nearly everything. That’s what they’re for.

(Note: More than most of the content in these mini-essays, this section about menus is really geared toward laptop and desktop computers, as opposed to tablet computers like iPad or smartphones like iPhone. I’ll later extend the text to cover those devices too.)

Really short history lesson (please bear with me and read this!)

Computers used to be different. Back in the early days (say, the early 80s and before), computers big or small required that you type in commands for everything you wanted to do. Really arcane-looking stuff, filled with cryptic words and mystic abbreviations and undecipherable variables. That’s how you worked with applications on a computer. Not surprisingly, such computers were the rarified domain of learned experts. (Typically with neck-beards; don’t ask me why.)

A better idea came along in research labs, though. It made its public appearance in Apple’s Macintosh computers in 1984, and was soon adopted by every other personal computer you’re likely to come across. It was a simple concept: Instead of waiting for users to type in the arcane, memorized commands that made applications do things, the computer shows the user a list – a “menu” – of all of the commands, each with an easy-to-understand name. The user can simply look over the commands in the menu, and select the desired command.

So instead of memorizing arcane commands (like “mkdir” to create a new folder) and typing those onto the screen, you see a menu already filled with meaningful commands (like “Create a new folder”), and you select the one you want. Poof. Done.

That concept joined up with the wonderful idea of representing applications and data graphically: unique icons to represent different files, cute little folder icons to represent folders (which until then been called “directories”), overlapping windows to display whatever applications wanted to show you, and so on. This set-up – the Graphical User Interface (or GUI), as it’s called – added many more ways to send commands to applications without typing in crazy stuff: buttons and sliders and trash cans and more, plenty of things to “press” and “drag” and “switch”. It’s all good stuff that you’ll want to learn.

But even with all the windows and buttons and stuff on the screen, at the core of each application is still the menu. It shows you all (well, most) of the stuff you can do, especially all the good stuff that can’t be easily turned into a clickable button. So let’s head back there.

What’s on the menu?

Take the application you’re using now – your web browser, I presume, as you’re reading this web page – and check out its menus.

First, you’ll note that I said menus, not menu. You’re probably looking at a menu divided up into several headings, like “File”, “Edit”, “View”, and so on. The reason is simple: There are so many commands in the menus that putting them all into one list would make it impossibly long. Dividing up the commands into several categories makes it easier to find a specific item. (Theoretically, anyway. Remember, such categorizing is done by people for very human reasons, and their reasons may or may not seem sensible to you.)

What categories of menus does your application offer? What sort of commands are inside each one? Do some of them appear easy to understand, allowing you to guess what the command will do? (Don’t expect crystal clarity; most of the commands are much shorter than they could be. A command that says “Create a new web browser window” would be as clear as possible, but my web browser only offers a terse “New window”, presumably to save space.) Are some commands just incomprehensible? (That’s okay; if it doesn’t mean anything to you, ignore it for now!)

Now switch to another application – a word processor, your favorite game, whatever. Check out its menus. They’re a lot different from the web browser’s menus, right? Of course they are; the two applications do different things, and so they offer different commands. Yet some commands are common to both, which is a nice thing. Good programmers try to make their new applications work like other existing applications, so that things behave as you expect, and so that what you learn on one application (including some menu commands) will apply to others, too. When the programmers do that well, it’s a big help to the learner.

Embrace the menu

So. When you want your word processor application to do this but don’t know how, what’s the first thing you should do? Check the menus. You should make that almost a reflex: When you want to do something, check the menus for the command that does it. Or even if you don’t know what you want to do, and just want to know what you can do, or just want to know what a  certain application is good for in the first place, check the menus. Browsing through them is a good quick introduction to any application’s functions.

Menus are the heart of making your application do everything and anything. Use ’em!

Other controls outside the menu

Stay tuned for a look at some other bits and pieces you use to control applications, like:

  • Preferences
  • Palettes
  • Keyboard and mouse

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