In helping people who don’t “get” some aspect of using computers, one thing has always struck me: So many of those people blame themselves when they shouldn’t!

Just click once!... No, wait, twice...

Just click once!… No, wait, twice…

One of my favorite examples is the common confusion over whether to click on something once (“single-click”) or click on it twice (“double-click”) when using a mouse or trackpad. Lots of people embarrassedly admit to always feeling uncertain over this. (And – it’s true – there are also more experienced, but unkind, jokers out there who like to poke fun at “ol’ Grandma who thinks everything has to be double-clicked”.)

As I see it, though, how should anyone know this naturally? It’s not like there’s some counterpart to this “single- vs double-click” business somewhere else in our daily lives. There’s no real-world analogy that tells us how to handle this clicking business.

More to the point, has anyone ever explained the difference to you, in simple terms? Maybe you’ve been handed the common “explanation” that says, “When you double-click something, that means  ‘open this’.” All right, that’s a usable explanation in some situations, but it’s meaningless in other situations – because really, it’s not even correct.

More likely, you’ve simply been told to single-click here and double-click there, with no further explanation at all. (Years ago, I watched a tutorial video that Apple provided with new Mac computers, aimed at people using a mouse for the very first time. Apple often does a good job of making things easy for beginners, but this tutorial simply told the user to click here and click there, but double-click this icon here… with no explanation of why. The company passed up a good opportunity for teaching something useful to first-time users.)

"We installed the Internet!"

“We installed the Internet!”

Here’s another example: a (hilariously awkward) video from 1997, “The Kids’ Guide to the Internet“. This video purports to introduce families and kid to the world of the Internet, a new and mysterious thing at the time. But amid all the enthusiasm over web pages and browsers and email and Internet service providers and “installing the Internet on your computer” (which is a really odd use of words, but never mind…), there’s one thing the video never tells us: What the heck is “the Internet”?

Fast forward to today. You may have been using the Internet for years. Now imagine I sidle up and ask you, “Say, you seem to use this ‘Internet’ thing a lot. What exactly is ‘the Internet’?” Could you give me a short, confident answer?

If not, don’t beat yourself up. Think: During all those years of people telling you how to use a browser, and hitting you with advertisements for one ISP or another, and pestering you to join this or that online social network… did anyone give you a short, confident explanation of what the Internet is? I’ll bet no one ever did.

One more example. Here a man engaged in tech support – that is, a fellow whose job is helping people with computer troubles – talks about the written instructions that one of his client companies uses. In these instructions,

…On one page, a menu “drops down”; on the next, the same menu ‘pops up’. Windows also variously “pop out”, “appear”, “explode” and – incongruously – “zoom up”, and they are referred to under random monikers, such as “palettes”, “panels”, “screens” and “messages”. Is it any wonder ordinary people find computers so bloody hard to use when people like us write the instructions with all the clarity and precision of a dirty Hungarian phrasebook?

My thoughts exactly.

The basics of the basics. The “dumb questions” that no one seems to ask, but that are actually the best questions of all. Those are the things I want to discuss and learn at Bit Cafe!


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