Starting from scratch

Recently I had the rare pleasure of introducing a septuagenarian to the wonders of portable computing. This is not the first time that my elders have challenged me to open the doors of technology, but never before has the challenge been so great. Fortunately, this particular person is greatly motivated to go online, as there is an urgent need to establish regular communications, to attain independence and to find a means of interacting with the world that would not necessitate going out into the harsh winter weather that’s only a few months away.

My new student had not encountered a keyboard since the days when typewriters dominated, many decades ago. In recent weeks, another tutor had established some of the basics of modern computer usage. These include the general layout of the keyboard; the use of visual icons to represent common functions; the relationship between the mouse and the pointer. Things which most of my peers would take for granted, and probably not even notice.

So far, I have only delivered two hour-long lessons. In that short time I have observed many of these basic features of computer use, and marvelled at how foolish many of us are in assuming that people naturally know what to do. Whether it is a rather large and powerful PC, or a small specialised portable device, we need to keep in mind the reaction of the complete novice.

Here, for example, are some of the things that my most determined student has highlighted for me in the past week:

  • You have to maintain the mouse orientation, even though your hand may naturally rotate into a more comfortable angle. Failure to do so causes complete confusion as the pointer no longer traces a predictable path.
  • You have to hold the shift down. Pressing it harder is not the same as “caps lock”.
  • The feedback beeps, chimes and whistles accompanying a dialog box can be scary to the unsuspecting.
  • When text wraps, it brings the whole word with it.
  • You can delete mistakes in your text, but it’s much easier if instead of holding the delete key down you merely go back to the single mistake and correct just that bit.
  • It is generally good advice to suggest that all the text in a dialog box should be read, before clicking any button. Sadly, much of the text in dialog boxes is gobbledegook. Worse still, there is no “safe” response if the gobbledegook makes no sense. This is where the telephone usually comes in…

And so it goes. At this point we have achieved some proficiency in power up/down, IM, sending and receiving of email and today a brief look at the browser. The Enter key still creates some confusion as sometimes it is the familiar carriage return (in a text entry context), but sometimes it marks the conclusion of some interaction, causing the current window to disappear and creating a mad panic that somehow the computer has been fatally wounded.

There are many more lessons ahead, but I am confident that we will be successful. At least that’s what I gathered from the email I received some hours after I delivered today’s lesson, which was merely five words long, but full of optimism.

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