My first computer came with a big solid manual. In fact it came with two, one for MS-DOS, the operating system, and one for BASIC. The first – and for a long time only – software package I had to run on it was Word Perfect, which came with another hefty manual. WordPerfect box, 1989All three were ring binders, and together they took up a good stretch of scarce book shelf space.

The ring binders went first. Then the paper got thinner, the covers floppier, and gradually the volumes got slimmer. They stopped attempting to be comprehensive and then stopped being printed altogether.

Probably nobody much read them when they were there to be read. Now it’s probably more efficient to google the answer anyway, but that requires you to know the question to which you want an answer. But “I didn’t knew it could do that…” is not a question, it is the result of discovery, not a prompt for it.

I wrote the last few paragraphs on a Nexus 7. A few weeks ago, it updated itself to the latest version of android. The font on the clock has changed. Some icons which used to turn blue now don’t. As for anything less obvious, I have no idea, and Google has not made the slightest attempt to tell me. But I have come across an article that tells me that some rather useful functionality which had been added in the previous release has now been removed again. Had I known it was there I would have been irritated at the loss of it. But as I didn’t know it was there in the first place, I am not in practice any worse off.

Perhaps that’s because nobody takes any notice, even if they are told. One of the commenters on Charles Arthur’s article which prompted all this argued strongly that they – we – don’t:

I think that people’s unwillingness to take even a few minutes to learn some simple techniques shows how this won’t change time soon. Windows 8 shows people key functionality when first installed for example, but I’ve seen users simple click through it all without taking the slightest bit of notice. 2 minutes increased could have made their X years experience with the product much less stressful.

Similarly, I released an App early this year that had a 30 second tutorial showing how best to navigate it and useful techniques to maximise your experience. 70% of the support requests and negative reviews are asking for things that are clearly included this tutorial (and honestly, it’s reasonably well done and very straightforward)!

Meanwhile, as I was starting to write this, Aral Balkan was setting up a new app with learning baked in to the design – though of course that doesn’t guarantee that the process is effective:

I am frequently surprised how many people who spend their working lives working in Windows don’t know some very basic keyboard shortcuts, including ones I use many times a day. But smug though that lets me feel, I have no idea how much time I waste by not employing some equally basic shortcuts which I just don’t happen to know about. In the interest of research, I have just confirmed that it takes only a few seconds to find the definitive list (which is something I have never bothered to do before). And even if you do trouble to look, the resulting experience is not always a rich and rewarding one:

ALT+- (ALT+hyphen): Displays the Multiple Document Interface (MDI) child window’s System menu (from the MDI child window’s System menu, you can restore, move, resize, minimize, maximize, or close the child window)

If that makes immediate sense to you, you’re probably a power user so extreme that you are operating through telepathy rather than anything as mundane as a keyboard.

In an ideal world, you would get useful suggestions, related to the thing you were trying to do, that helped you do it but otherwise kept out of your way.Clippy parody: That is, of course, what Microsoft tried to provide through what rapidly became the most derided and unpopular feature in Office, the ever helpful and ever irritating Clippy the paperclip.

Clippy is long gone, but serves to show just how much harder this is than it first appears. There are now many more subtle and less intrusive ways of providing help related to what a user is trying to do, but they still have two intrinsic weaknesses. They usually depend on the user recognising that they need help. And they invariably can’t help the user do something they don’t know can be done.

So that leaves us with two challenges. The first is the one which Neil started this post with: if better understanding of fairly basic tools could reduce frustration and improve efficiency, there would be great value in helping people move further along the spectrum from newbie to power user. Or to put it a different way, how do we introduce continuous improvement into the way we use our tools?

The second is the implications of all this for discontinuous change. If it’s hard enough to help people become more effective users of tools they are already familiar with, how much harder to move them from tools they know to start the learning curve afresh with new tools – which means there is a strong connection between this and the issues of usability and familiarity I wrote about last week.

The world would be a (very slightly) better place if more people knew the power of Ctrl-/Cmd-F. It would be (a great deal) better still if our tools were smart enough to teach us how to use them better.

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