Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Training

Today's software is intuitive! Anyone can use it without any kind of training.

Can't they?


Why does this myth persist?

Well, the cynic in me says that companies like Microsoft have done a superlative sales job in convincing us that their interfaces are intuitive. And company executives happily buy into it because it means they can get away without training their staff. But I contend that this is nothing more than vacuous sales talk with no real substance.

But, they argue, user interfaces these days are graphical. Pictures are easy to understand. So the interface is easy.

Oh, really?

As I type the draft of this post in MS Word, in the toolbar at the top of the screen are two icons that are almost identical. They consist of what looks like a sheet of paper with a magnifying glass on top of it.

Any guesses? And no cheating! If the symbol really is intuitive you should be able to tell me right away what it represents.

OK. If pressed, I'd have said they were something to do with zooming in or magnifying part of the page. But no. One is "Print preview". One is "Navigation pane". Two very different meanings for almost identical icons. Neither of which has anything to do with a magnifying glass.

The truth is that most icons are little better than arbitrary pictures with an assigned meaning. The icon means this because I say it does.

The reason the "intuitive" myth persists is not that it's in any way true, but that many of the common symbols in use have become largely standardized and have entered our common lexicon as a computer-literate population.

That doesn't make them intuitive. They've been learned!

The reason I am dwelling on this is that it might be reasonable to depend on learned meaning for widespread software, but when you write your business applications you'd better plan on training your users. No matter what you may think, what you put in front of them will not be intuitive, it will need to be learned.

On top of this, if you are doing anything worthwhile for your business sponsor, it ought to involve a serious re-think of the way the business works, and a significant expansion on the capabilities of the business. You will need to train people not just in the technicalities of the user interface, but also in the ways to get the best business value from the software.

If you fail to do that, all the investment on your part in building the best darned asset management system in the universe will be precisely for naught, because they won't use it to its full potential.

And, after all your hard work, wouldn't that be a shame?


  1. Intuitive you say? Everything I learned about my computer I learned over my lunch hour 'poking about' in the system. Oh the troubles I got into. Oh how angry our IT guys would get at me. It got to the point where they would see my extension number flash, pick up the phone and say, "what have you done now?". I learned tons though. Now I still poke about but I have to get myself out of my messes. Intuitive? I don't think so.

  2. Delores, exactly. I have no arguments with the idea that things are easy to learn, or can be learned by trial and error, or depend on learned behavior that is deeply embedded in our collective thinking. But whenever I hear the work "intuitive", my teeth start to grind.

  3. LOL. My husband has trained his company on I don't know how many different technological procedures. (He's my computer white knight.) I'm not opposed to dabbling and trying things out on my own--and isn't youtube amazing for teaching videos? BUT, I do hold that deep-embedded terror that I'm going do something that's irreversible.

  4. Intuitive my hiney!! I'm scared to poke around and break something! I'd rather just have the training and be done with it!



  5. Hi Ian .. intuitive = no! I just wish it would leave me alone - we're not going to be able to spell, and often things are going to be haywire as we won't pick up a correction - I struggle!

    Cheers Hilary


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