Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Thing You Must Absolutely Know How to Do

I'm constantly amazed by people in the workplace, both in good ways and bad ways. The good? They're kind, interesting, and they often have wonderful talents that you might never discover if you didn't take the time to listen to them. The bad? I am constantly discovering that people lack the most basic skills in the software tools that they use every day. The most important thing that people don't know how to do?

Use application help.

I'm pretty good at using basic office productivity software (stuff to write, manipulate numbers, design and run presentations, you know the Office software I'm talking about here). So how did I get like this? I didn't attend instructor-led classes or have a private tutor. When I needed to do something that I didn't know how to do, I just fired up the online help in the application. I typed my question, I used the index, I picked through the help files until I found what I needed, and then I did it. It's pretty simple, really.

Look, people, a nice team of technical writers spent months or years going through that application with a fine-tooth comb discovering all the bells and whistles and documenting them. Most software (though certainly not all) will at least point you in the right direction when you're trying to learn how to use it. Most of the big label products also have tutorials -- lessons built right into the help files that will step you through all the tasks you need to create a new whatever-it-is-the-software-is-designed-to-help-you-make. But the technical communicators can only do so much for you -- at some point you have to take responsibility for your own growth as a software user and open up the book. Or, as I like to say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think.

I know that not everybody learns the same way, but between the tutorials that talk you through stuff, the "Show Me" features, the pictures and the words, and the fact that when you use online help you're theoretically actively engaged in a meaningful (to you) task and you have some motivation for completing it successfully (e.g. not getting fired) -- well, it sounds like most of the learning style bases are covered. Like I said, vast teams of specialized technical writers, learning and cognition experts, and other smart people spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways they can help you git-r-done with their software. It's their job.

I can't help but note the corollary principal here: It's not my job.

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