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Phil Agre: How to Help Someone Use A Computer.

by Phil Agre <>
Nobel Prize Winner

Reasons to Play On the Educational CyberPlayGround

Please forward this article to everyone who can use it.


Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they "help" other people with their computer problems. Now that we're trying to get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I've been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

  1. Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  2. You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.
  3. If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.
  4. A computer is a means to an end. The person you're helping probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.

Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can do and see -- "when I do this, it does that". They need to develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.

By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried several different things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.

The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has skills that you don't have.

Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem on their own. So it's okay if they take notes.

Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it's usually the fault of the interface. You've forgotten how many ways you've learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You've forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.

Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who's not part of a community of computer users is going to have a harder time of it than one who is.

Having convinced yourself of these things, you are more likely to follow some important rules:

* Don't say "it's in the manual". (You probably knew that.)

(This article is adapted from The Network Observer ©1996 by Phil Agre. You can forward it to anyone for any noncommercial purpose.


Stephen Colbert: "You said 'anyone who grew up on a farm knows that evolution exists'. OK, are you saying a monkey can milk a cow?"

Peter Agre: "Well, if I can milk a cow I suspect a monkey as smart as I am can milk a cow."

SC: "Are there monkeys as smart as you?"

PA: "I'm sure there are quite a few, quite a few.

SC: "Oh really? Mmhum. Do they give a Nobel prize for throwing your own feces?"

PA: "........That's the Economics prize, I think."

-- Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert interviews Dr. Peter Agre of Scientists and Engineers for America

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