How to help someone use a [insert frustrating digital device]

Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is.

As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.

Agre has advice for these situations too:

  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.

Oh boy, can I criticize a bad interface…


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