Friday, March 11, 2005

Training I - Do your users think in ink?

I suspect that there will be a zillion posts here about training. There are so many issues involved and I am convince that it is a make-or-break issue for any Tablet PC program. I will kick this series off with a post that is more philosophical, kind of a stream-of-consciousness full of my musings-of-the-moment.

Tablet PCs seem so normal in many respects. (Bear with me, here, if you disagree.) They are really just a computer. Taking notes by hand is just writing. Most programs are just Windows programs running on a certain computer. In most respects, they seem like they should be as familiar as the proverbial back of your hand. (Well, okay so the back of your hand is literal, not proverbial, but you know what I mean.)

Why then can they seem so foreign, so intimidating to some people, particularly, if I may say so, teachers and other adults? Why do they need “training” to use something that is arguably nothing really new? Why do people who don’t get training tend to revert to using the Tablet as just a notebook? Or worse, go back to using a desktop or notebook and swear off Tablets?

I was IT Director for Burton Snowboards for a half-dozen or so years. During that time I learned to snowboard and watched a lot of others learn. I even taught a few myself. Pretty consistently I saw that non-skiers tended to have an easier time learning to ride than skiers did, all other things (such as innate athletic ability) being equal. In fact, to some degree the more experienced the skier, the worse student of snowboarding they were. Oh, to be sure, some really great skiers took to boards quickly, but they were the exception, not the rule. Some simply gave up in frustration and stayed on skis. What gives?

I would argue that the experienced skier has an intuitive feel for snow and for sliding downhill on snow. They have not only a mental comfort, but they have the muscle memory that makes it intuitive for them. Clamping their legs to a single board and turning them sideways to the hill throws this muscle memory completely out of kilter. They feel constrained by the bindings and the rigidity of their legs relative to each other. They are off balance without the skill to retain or regain it unconsciously. They are frustrated at finding something that has always been so natural and easy suddenly unnatural and difficult.

I think something like this happens with a lot of users when they get a Tablet for the first time. Relearning so many skills and concepts that they have worked to learn and master is difficult and uncomfortable. There is a strong and real sense that things that should be easy are suddenly hard. There is a mental block to thinking in a new way, a kind of mental muscle memory that is suddenly out of kilter. For example, how many of you when showing someone writing in Journal or some other app hear the question, “How do you convert it to text”? After all, in their minds, text is the input for computers and ink must just be a new way to get text. (Well, it can be that, of course, but it is so much more.) You have to explain that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, ink is just ink and stays that way.

We need to find ways of training that address these difficulties. A key goal needs to be to get people to “think in ink” to borrow Microsoft’s phrase. Part of our training needs to help them learn new ways of doing old things, of course, and hopefully at least as efficiently as they could on just a keyboard. But, we also need to help them to get past the idea that they just do all the old things, in the old way, but with a pen.

If any of you are language teachers, I suspect that a big obstacle you see is students who want to speak Spanish or French or whatever with English constructs and American (or whatever) style phrasing. Kids construct their ideas and phrases in English, then translate them. What we really want them to do is learn to think in Spanish or French and construct their thought in that language and with that language’s idioms and phrasing.

Maybe some of you language teachers have tricks you could share that help with this. I think we really do face much the same obstacle.

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