Training Revolution

Command KeyThe buzz was running among Geeks this week Teens are bored with FaceBook. I’ve been saying for a while that the kids who grow up in the era of persistent-connectivity are going to naturally find boundaries with these tools. They don’t want to be overwhelmed with social networks, that’s what texting is for. The growing trend among younger users on FaceBook is that it’s overwhelming, and they don’t want to be overwhelmed. So they are migrating to other services like Tumblr and Instagram (yes, I know Instagram was purchased by FaceBook. The article linked above pretty much tells you why).

As a technologist who works with pastors and a denominational region, this is the type of shift which sends people into a tizzy. There are still people out there who are just joining FaceBook thinking they’ll “be able to connect to young people” – and now the young people are flocking somewhere else. “Now we have to learn a whole new service,” the lament goes.

This lament is the problem.

Whenever I teach people technology skills, I make an effort to not focus on simply one tool. Rather, I try to teach skills which can be translated from tool to tool. These skills will often need to be tweaked depending on the tool at hand, but once the skill is embedded tool-changes cease being moments of, “I don’t know what do to!” panic. Instead, they become moments where a user is freed to think, “I know this is possible, how can I do this?”

A good example of this are hyperlinks. Early on in the web’s life, when people saw blue, underlined, text emerging users understood clicking on that text would take you somewhere else. As the years have gone on, even as the traditional look of hyperlinks has long-since ceased being popular, people still understand clicking/tapping blue, underlined, text will take you somewhere. The skill has been learned, and therefore works on web-pages, social networking apps, eReaders, and even Bible software. People don’t look at an underlined asterisk or or number in an eBook, for example, and panic. They simply know what it does.

The holds true for tools like word processors, presentation applications, spreadsheets, and web-browsers. If users learn the skills needed to use each kind of tool, it shouldn’t matter if they are suddenly set in front of an unfamiliar application. There will certainly be over-lap. Many of the formatting icons are the same across tools, after all. Where there is no overlap, however, users need to be trained to understand the functions they need to be productive, and invited to explore how they might be implemented in another tool.

This also holds true on social networking sites, which brings us back to the lament over the abandonment of Facebook by teens. The “tool of the day” will always be shifting, that is the nature of the web. So instead of fixating on learning how a particular social network works, we should be teaching people what it can do. Facebook has “friends,” people with whom users share pictures, updates, and comments. Google+ has “circles.” Twitter and Instagram have “followers.” The ideas are different, but similar.

If people are completely fixated on the fact that Facebook has “friends,” and that’s the only way they know how to connect on social networking, they when they open Google+ and see “circles” they will be lost. If a person has been taught to think, “Social networks are about making connections” then perhaps they will be freed to explore how that particular tool manages to make those connections.

This a dramatic shift in the way we train people to use computers, reliant on teaching people to develop instincts every bit as much as repetitive skills. It is, however, a perfect time to be implementing such a shift. The arrival of touch as a pervasive computer interface has opened up a whole new world of instinctive computing – more so than even the icon-driven interfaces of old. Instinct, developed through years of experience, tells us we can move objects by flicking and swiping – so we do this naturally on our phones and tablets. Instinct tells us pinching is a good motion to make things larger or smaller, and so we do this. Now that the interfaces have caught up with the way people actually function in the world, it’s time our training methods caught up as well.