The technologically challenged?

Subject: The technologically challenged?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Jan Cohen <najnehoc -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 31 Jul 2007 08:39:25 -0400

Jan Cohen opined: <<I think part of the problem is that advances in
technology and manufacturing processes during the last two to three
decades have made a whole range of what would have once been
considered rather expensive and complicated devices available to the
average consumer. For instance, years ago (and still, today), a lot
of people would use a simple box camera with a fixed focus lens to
shoot their family pictures. With a little instruction, they'd drop
in a film cartridge, point and shoot, then drop the film cartridge
off at the drugstore. It was cheap, and almost idiot proof.>>

Though your starting point is correct, it's your second point (the
cartridge-based cameras -- anyone remember Instamatics?) that is more
enlightening. When cameras first came out, they required considerable
expertise to use, and loading and unloading "film" was not for the
faint of heart. The same could be said of automobiles: forcing a
Model T to transport you took enormous amounts of strength, skill,
persistence, and luck. But over time, both technologies have evolved
to the point where nearly anyone can use them: consider PhD cameras
("press here, dummy!" and automatic transmissions, for instance.

The problem with electronics technology and software is that we're
still at the Model T stage. Nobody has devoted the sustained effort
required to train engineers and programmers to develop equally
reliable and usable products.

<<Today, you've got the same kinds of people that once bought the box
cameras buying gadgets equipped with hundreds of functions and
perhaps thousands of ways of using them. Given that complexity, a
simple 10 or 20 page pamphlet isn't going to teach you everything you
can do with such devices, illustrated or not.>>

And yet a modern automobile has every bit as many functions --
probably more if you consider that the task domain is far more open-
ended then the task domain for most software. Yet it doesn't take
long to master how to drive, whereas few people ever master software.
Sure, software can be quite complex, but the real problem is that the
complexity isn't masked or packaged tidily, unlike with (say) a car.
In addition, there are few equivalents to the "road signs" that guide
us when we navigate: "for dummies" manuals might serve the role of
maps, and "wizards" might serve the role of road signs, but neither
is mature yet. Worse yet, the products simply don't work reliably.
Compare modern fuel injection systems with the old carburetors: the
former are more efficient and reliable, though the downside is that
you can't adjust them as easily as you could adjust the latter when
problems arose.

<<It's going to take a lot of information to do so properly. But
even if you provide such documentation in a clear and relatively
concise manner, put together using all your technical writing know-
how, you're still going to find a lot of consumers that just don't
have the patience to seek out the information they need in that
documentation as part of the process of learning how to use their new

That's certainly true. Our modern culture focuses on the denial of
responsibility, not encouraging people to take responsibility for
their own success. Despite the predictions of futurists back in the
60s, nobody is driving a personal air car today for precisely that
reason: the technology certainly exists, but engineers understand
that most people are too lazy to learn how to drive properly and
safely in two dimensions, and asking them to cope in three dimensions
would be sheer homicidal lunacy. Nonetheless, given that this is the
challenge we face, and given that we're not going to change this
situation on our own, it behooves us to plan products to accomodate
this audience.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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The technologically challenged (was - Re: Tech writers still necessary, but performing poorly): From: Jan Cohen

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