Thursday, February 2, 2012

MFW: Teaching & Learning in a Manual-Free World


There are no more manuals. They're gone. No one read them, and so they went away--like childhood toys, now forgotten.

Yes, people still make manuals. And people make manuals for software and hardware that is "missing" the manual. But there are clear reasons to think: the manual is dead. 

Managing resources for software and hardware designers was never easy. A printed manual gets out-of-date quickly. So that was one reason to give up. With always-on internet, an always-up-to-date web site beats last year's manual.

More importantly, the New Design Idea is: manuals are only necessary when the design is bad. Good design means the user interface and experience are intuitive. 

The Coming of the GUI (graphical user interface) was the Going of the Manual.

The Manual Idea was:
  • the user needs to know everything.
  • "Everything" means all the menus and every item in every menu, plus every sub-item.
  • And the user needs to remember where everything is.

The truth is: no one does everything with a piece of software. Increasingly, software and hardware tools have more limited functions. If you think about it, this makes little sense, because the virtue of a computer is: it can imitate many other machines. That was part of the Turing's influential conception: a computer would be a "universal" logico-mathematical machine.

The computer is truly a universal machine.

  • Your computer is a phone, and a phone is your computer. 
  • Your computer is a TV, and your TV is a computer.
  •  Your phone is a camera, and your camera is a phone, and your ebook reader is a camera, etc.
  • Your answering machine is--well, it isn't: it was replaced by a computer somewhere outside your house.

So small computers are everywhere. But then apps give them many functions.

  • There's one app for taking pictures.
  • There's another app for sharing pictures.
  • There's one app for sending text messages.
  • There's another app for tweeting text messages.
  • There's one app to get voicemail.
  • There's another app to record voice memo's.

It's all the same piece of hardware, but we seem to want whichever app gives us that function--taking pictures, sending messages, recording voice memo's--most effortlessly.

So the world of tiny computers as platforms for apps is the manual-free world. 

So how do we help people use these apps? How do we train people? What has replaced the manual? 

The pathway has replaced the manual. Instead of the tree of menus and menu items, we have pathways.

  • Pathways are tasks.
  • Pathways are goal-driven.
  • Pathways are stories. Our brains like stories.
  • Pathways are memorable.

So our new way of training is: teach the pathway, not the manual.

And what will this do for education, the textbook, and expository writing? We are only beginning to see. But the short answer is: look it up in the manual.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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