Do Not Fear the Computer

When starting anything new, most people have a fear of doing something, anything, wrong. For me, it is one of the most difficult reactions that I need to overcome before truly understanding a technology.

My own, personal, fear manifests as getting the implementation wrong. When I start learning a new tool or language, I become obsessed over “doing it right”. With a simple implementation in hand, I’ll start searching forums or digging into the source to try and uncover the best way to accomplish my goal. This usually wastes hours of my time when the “wrong way” works just fine. In the end, I’ll still use my simple implementation as the want for breadth of knowledge starts to overcome the want for depth of knowledge.

If I continue learning the tool, I’ll look back in a month’s or year’s time and be ashamed of my foolish, ignorant, younger self. So, really, there’s no need for the wasted time.

I’ve also seen a similar issue with some non-technical folks when it comes to computers and software in general. There is an overwhelming sense that their computer is a ticking time bomb and the wrong button or click will blow the computer to pieces or crash the OS. My wife had this fear in abundance. Over time, with a bit of hand holding, she worked through this fear, and I’m glad to say she now knows that good software understands that the user makes mistakes. That’s why PARC invented the undo command.

Fear of the computer interrupts the idea-to-execution process. Alice has an idea and wants to use her software to make it manifest. If the software is so complex that she can’t find command needed to complete the task at hand, then she may give up. Fear of the computer prevents experimentation.

Proper software needs to encourage experimentation. Any action must be reversible; any command must make its effects clear; any permanent change must be preventable. Naming of actions must take priority over all other UI features. Should posts be “Submitted” or “Published”. Depending on the context, both words may be synonyms, or they could imply non-permanent or permanent actions.

Proper software needs to understand that user’s fear that they may be “doing it wrong”. Either the software needs to make it clear that the user is indeed “doing it right” or at least let the user know they may be doing it wrong.

In the end, however it is accomplished, the software must take away the user’s fear if the creators want their work to be used.

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About Jay Lindquist
Developer and wonderer