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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Novice Users Should Just Go With the Flow

April 05, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | larry.magid@latimes.com

Over the years, I've been watching how people use PCs, trying to determine the difference between those who are comfortable and adept at it and those who are still a bit awkward.

Although experience has a lot to do with it, attitude can be even more important. Some people approach PCs very mechanically, issuing commands sequentially as if by rote. Others are able to steer their PCs in the direction they want it to go, much the way a bicyclist leans into a turn or an experienced pilot glides an aircraft to a smooth landing.

The mechanical approach has its place, but I find going with the flow to be most effective because it's more natural. What's more, a lot of today's programs and equipment come with little or no documentation, so you're often forced to figure things out on your own.

I first noticed what I call "Zen computing" back in the 1980s when I was teaching people how to use the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program. 1-2-3, like today's spreadsheet programs, allows you to use the mouse or the arrow keys to highlight numbers that you wish to use in a formula.

But it also allows you to type in the actual cell numbers, which is how some people approached it. It worked, but it was error prone and tedious. Others quickly figured out that you could do the same thing by highlighting the information with your mouse or arrow keys.

These were the same people who understood other aspects of the program better. They tended to learn more quickly and be proficient later on because the techniques they mastered became a natural extension of the way they approached the machine. Again, it's like riding a bicycle. Once you learn to do it naturally, you don't forget.

Another thing that separates comfortable PC users from those who struggle is experimentation and exploration. My 14-year-old son, for example, almost never reads manuals. But he's very adept at learning new software because he's willing to try things such as clicking on icons and pulling down menus. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he also learns quickly.

Another important attribute is a willingness to look around. My wife, for example, is a lot better than I am at finding wallets, cell phones and other physical objects. But she's not all that good when it comes to finding icons on a screen.

The other day, I moved the Microsoft Word icon from one part of the PC's desktop to another part and she struggled because it wasn't where she expected to find it. To make her life easier, I've copied the icons from the programs she uses regularly to the Start menu and have resisted the temptation to move them. I've also encouraged her to search around a bit when she doesn't immediately find what she's looking for.

Speaking of looking around, there are relatively easy ways to find documents, especially if you remember when you created them or any word in the file name or the document itself. The list of files in all Windows folders can be sorted by name, type, size and date.

If you sort by date--most recent first--you can easily find documents that were recently created or modified. From the View menu, select Details and then click on the Modified button so that the arrow points down. Your most recent files are at the top of the list. You also can do this within the Open File dialogue box in Microsoft Word and application programs. You should also learn to use the Search function in the Start menu to locate files by name or even by content.

One of the first things users need to learn is what to do when things go wrong. The first rule is not to blame yourself. Things go wrong all the time with computers, and most of the time it's not your fault. Programs just stop working for no apparent reason. Sometimes you have no choice but to restart the computer. Even that can be a challenge if the machine doesn't have a reset switch or if the power switch doesn't respond.

If I were in charge, every computer would have a reset switch along with an old-fashioned on/off switch that works every time, but those--along with adequate documentation--have become endangered species.

*

Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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