Using Technology: Some Golden Rules

Sticker seen somewhere on the Internet

I’ve worked with and recommended technology for some years now. It’s sometimes difficult to recommend something, because people use technology in different ways. Sometimes it’s difficult to see an interaction with technology from the perspective of someone who has a different background, skill set, or goal. This is one of the reasons why I think that using technology is an individual process, especially when it comes to organizing creativity.

However, there are some golden rules when it comes to technology that are widely applicable and should be adhered to (and only be broken if you have a good reason for doing so):

  • Technology does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do — Computers are a good example of this rule and many problems  inexperienced users have with computers can be traced to a violation of this rule. Especially people who otherwise have more power over their environment — e.g., managers — seem to fall prey to this fallacy. Computers do not compensate for ambiguous communication.
  • Technology is uncaring — Sometimes I wonder whether some technology users think that the technology should give them a “fair break” — something akin to the “just-world-hypothesis“. It does not. It makes no difference to a computer whether the file is your dissertation thesis (i.e., the last 3-5 years of hard work) or a video of a cat — they both delete the same way and in roughly the same time.
  • Sometimes you need a good tutor, or wizard — Sometimes people work inefficiently for years, wasting time and effort. It almost always pays off to read about using the tools you use and looking at the way how others use the tool. While this seems trivial with ‘serious’ tools (e.g., power-tools), many users seem to think that their way of using — e.g., Microsoft Word — is the normal and correct way. Even with a tool as bad as Microsoft Word, there are countless ways to make work easier and more productive, e.g., Templates, Styles, Serial Letters, etc. Some things you can easily (with a good tutor), but sometimes you need a wizard who uses the tool in a way to save a lot of work.
  • Technology can be changed … by you — Many programs can be customized, not only regarding the look and feel but also functions, shortcuts, etc. This makes it hard to give general advice, but it also mean that one does not need to accept reoccurring problems in using technology. If the time you lose in modifying the tool is less than the accumulated time you lose using it in this inefficient way, it makes sense to adapt it. The best example I have encountered was using a frame to facilitate creating pages in a wiki and working with its content (yup, my own work ;-)).
  • Do NOT strive for perfection, it does not exist in tools — No creative tool is perfect, nor can it be perfect. Close to perfection the annoyance level explodes and performance craters. I’ll write another posting for this one, but here let’s just say that general purpose modification is good, modification to achieve perfection is counter-productive.

Note that there is a difference between good technology and bad technology (both times: good for some users). Technology can be designed in a way to make it easy for the user. Ideally, the actual and perfect-use failure rates are on the same, very low level.

But the mental models of the user still matter and I think that in dealing with technology (and inexperienced users), these mental models should come first.