Learning the hard way

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website too]

The British Computer Society is the professional body for those working in IT, and is one of the bodies that defines the working practices for those responsible for ensuring compliance with data protection legislation.

Sending out an email to seven hundred people with every email address visible to each recipient is about as far from good practice as you can get, yet that it what a hapless member of the Society’s staff did last week.

And in a twist worthy of the most clichéd sitcom, the email was an invitation to complete a customer satisfaction survey. Somehow I think the results will be slightly skewed towards the ‘could do better’ end of the response scale.

Of course this sort of thing happens all the time when it comes to personal emails, and I’m growing used to seeing long lists of email addresses in the To: or CC: field when people announce a change of address or a party invitation.

For some people, it seems, the ‘blind carbon copy’ or bcc: is a mystery as challenging as the truth about the Knights Templar.

It’s somewhat surprising that the BCS doesn’t have an in-house emailing system that automatically generates one message per recipient.

And even if they haven’t managed that rather minor feat of technological wizardry, Microsoft Word is perfectly capable of generating emails instead of letters as part of a mailmerge. You can even customise individual messages so they look more ‘personal’.

With these tools even unskilled computer users can handle large mailing lists, avoiding the dangers inherent in copying a long list of email addresses from a file or spreadsheet and pasting them into the wrong field in your email,

All it takes is a bit of training and an understanding of what the technology is capable of doing.

But that, I fear, is the problem.  We give people sophisticated IT systems, whether they are off-the-shelf office packages or specially written business software, and expect them to grasp them without too much difficulty.

Unfortunately few of us have any real grasp of what the programs can do, and so we end up finding something that sort of works and sticking with it, however clunky it is. Someone who knows how to send emails and how to do mail merge letters may simply not realise that their word processor can bring the two together seamlessly, because they have neither the time nor the inclination to explore the various options on offer.

And of course the programs themselves are so complex that even experts rarely know every little wrinkle.

This doesn’t just apply to word processing. Most people pick up spreadsheets pretty quickly, because they are just like graph paper, while databases seem more complex and harder to understand.

As a result it’s particularly common to find people using spreadsheets as databases, storing vast amounts of information in the rows and columns of increasingly complex and error-prone worksheets when a simple two or three table database would do the job simply and efficiently.

There are also many people out there who have worked out how to change the font or size of text in their word processor but have no idea about styles. Instead of using levels of heading and other formatting consistently throughout a document they set each header individually.

It looks fine, until you want to incorporate their work into another document and find that you can’t just redefine the styles to make it all look the same, and have to spend ages editing their hard-coded formatting.

This is not just about the minor irritations of other people’s poor office skills, however. It betrays a worrying lack of willingness to engage with the computers and programs we all encounter in our daily lives, a lack of willingness that is encouraged by adverts telling that computers can be easy and simple and require no real effort.

But not everything is easy, and not every computer interface is, or should be, simple to learn.  Some tasks are necessarily complex, as anyone who has build a commercial website or used a professional photo editing tool will tell you.

By trying to sell computers as intuitive and obvious, as requiring no special skill to pick up or use, we are giving every new user a model of IT that cannot sustain their long-term use.

It is as if we told sixteen year olds that once they can drive a dodgem car at the fair they are safe to go out on the roads, because they can pick things up as they go along.

The disaster of Windows security is certainly Microsoft’s fault, as for too many years they concentrated on usability at the expense of user safety.  But it is also our fault too, for not being willing to engage with our computers as complex environments that require constant attention, where our skills must be developed over time and where learning never really stops.

Sending out emails with everyone on the To: list is embarrassing, but it also reveals a much deeper malaise, one that we all need to address.  Yes, make computers easier to use, experiment with new interfaces like the radical approach taken on the XO model from the One Laptop Per Child project, and offer simpler and more intuitive interfaces where they are useful.

Strangely enough Apple, who focus more than most on ease of use in their advertising, also do a very good job of offering one-to-one hand-holding for new Mac users.

But it is time to stop pretending that ordinary users will not need to apply themselves carefully to learn how to use these powerful systems effectively. We need to make sure that the necessary training and advice is provided when and where it is needed.

Bill’s Links

BCS Embarrassment:

Apple one to one:

One laptop:

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One Response to Learning the hard way

  1. Jonathan says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post! All the addresses disclosed at the top of an e-mail is one of my pet hates. You’d often see this in the physics community, for example, because the e-mails are sent out by admin staff who aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to computers as the scientific staff. But as time goes on, even the latter group are beginning to have fewer traditional computer skills, and instead rely on whatever Microsoft makes easiest – all the addresses under To:, and using font sizes in Word.

    Ask yourself: what would happen to an employee who included a printed list of all recipients addresses with a mailshot that went to 700 customers? Quite possibly disciplinary action. The e-mail situation is no different, yet somehow no-one seems to care, just because it’s to do with computers – the equally computer-illiterate managers just laugh it off.

    I remember this happening with one high-profile company (possibly a bank) and it caused a lot of trouble as many customers’ “out of office assistants” replied to everyone with even more personal details such as phone numbers and postal addresses.

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