Teaching To Internet

I volunteeer weekly at Chrysalis in Downtown Los Angeles. I help teach people with less-than-stable living and work situations with how to use the internet to find jobs. This post is about what I learned about usability from working with hundreds of clients who have little to no computer experience or even exposure.

Browsing

Non-obvious cues as to what is and is not clickable make sites unusable for many. Text tips on hover or instructions all help users take advantage of what you have built.

Tutorials

Outside of video games and very specialized software, I just don’t see people ever using tutorials. Google does a great job forcing people to see a lovely Gmail and Gdoc tutorial but I am not sure what the clients, or any of us, absorb from a slideshow. A well constructed reference page remains a rare bird.

Accessibility

Many elderly clients have a hard time with small boxes and small targets. The window resize arrows really bedevil a lot of clients on Windows machines. Given the prevalence of touch screens, it really does not make sense to make an app for a mass audience with tiny targets unless you are sure you have young, tech savvy users.

Google-Fu

Learning how to Google was something that came natural to me since I grew up with pre-Google awfulness of search aggregators. Becoming an efficient search query constructor was important if you ever wanted to find anything on the then still-infant internet.

For people new to the internet, teaching them the basics of querying really comes down to concepts of filtering through the introduction of more (or fewer) terms to broaden the search, and the idea of using synonyms. Specific to the job search, knowing that there can be many words for a similar job can help people that haven’t been trained to think hyperliterally like a computer. For example, I teach the clients to search for, say, “custodian”, “janitor”, “maid” and “cleaner” on a job site like indeed.com.

Learning To Fly

In an average class of 15 people, I get a decent return on my time so long as I show people how to do things a couple of times with them following along. The best way to teach this stuff has been show-show-do, where I run through it quickly, do it more slowly, then have the class copy me on their machines.

Funny how learning to program has been the result of repetition and slogging through exercises, but when I teach, at first I assumed people would just get the concepts of navigating a browser because the concepts are so second nature to me. Everything takes practice and patience. Providing small rewards and providing information in bite sized morsels gets better results than high level discussions about what the Internet is, or the numeric IP addressing in an URI. I had to overcome my own desire to show off what I knew, establishing that I was an expert first. I find classroom environments triggering my own competitive desire to dominate peers and demonstrate mastery, so being in a classroom where I am teaching and my students, to be frank, couldn’t give a shit what I know beyond the curriculum, has been a cold splash of water on my ego.

Lessons for a Web, iOS Programmer

Accessibility is the first thing out the window when I am making a new app - all those alt attributes are just annoying when I have a pile of images to deal with. It is natural to have urges to be lazy. That said, accessibility is so unbelievably important for people that literally cannot use your creation otherwise. Small icons, vague or missing directions, small targets and confusing layouts are extra difficult for people to use who have not been exposed to much technology.

Dumping users into a control panel or profile that looks like a fighter jet cockpit inspires panic. Try to keep things simple and obvious. I think it is ok to hide options so long as the categorization is obvious.

The more we can make them feel like they are in a supportive, immersive environment the more likely they are to enjoy the app and use it again. Many people just want something simple and easy to use - a hammer instead of a Swiss Army Knife. It is easy to forget, when you have grown up with sites like Facebook, how impossibly busy and complicated that site actually is to someone new to computers, and that site has some of the brightest minds in the world working on it. Pop ups and alerts should really be used less than they are. People with little computer experience already feel like they broke something whenever they move the mouse. Anything that disrupts their flow can turn them off to computers.