Lessons from new user workshops

At August’s WordCamp San Francisco I helped orga­nize and run a new user work­shop on the Friday and Saturday of the 3-day con­fer­ence. The next month I did the same thing for Portland’s WordCamp. There’s a lot that we can learn as cre­ators of soft­ware by doing events like these. I think we need to do more of them.

New user work­shops teach us so much about how users actu­ally approach soft­ware. There’s not a more hon­est way to know how dif­fi­cult or easy your soft­ware is to use than to try and walk a room­ful of peo­ple through how to use it.

With a matur­ing project like WordPress this becomes even more true. It’s at a point where it can do so much that it is over­whelm­ing to many peo­ple. They don’t know where to start. Somebody with no prior expe­ri­ence using your soft­ware is remark­ably effec­tive at find­ing the areas that are not eas­ily under­stood. They are not shy about telling you what’s broken.

These work­shops taught me that things need to be sim­pler. There are so many options to click on after load­ing the Dashboard. It’s too much. The first Dashboard load in these work­shops was greeted, in many cases, with a look of over­whelmed con­fu­sion. Many peo­ple were lost and they hadn’t even started.

One thing that held true through the work­shops was that the eas­i­est fea­tures to explain were those most closely aligned to con­crete actions on the site. Screens like the dis­cus­sion set­tings and cus­tom menus were almost impos­si­ble to com­pre­hend. Others, like the Typekit font pre­view on WordPress.com, were imme­di­ately grokked and loved. Too many things in the Dashboard are abstracted from what they actu­ally do on a site. Publishing shouldn’t be done in a con­trol panel.

By gath­er­ing dozens of new users into one place you can also learn how peo­ple use soft­ware on var­i­ous devices. We had peo­ple at the work­shops using every­thing from a net­book, to MacBook Pros, iPads, and more. It was actu­ally amaz­ing how much of the work­shop peo­ple could fol­low on noth­ing more than an iPad and an exter­nal keyboard.

Not only can we learn about the strengths and weak­nesses of soft­ware, but we also learn how invig­o­rat­ing it is to have peo­ple using the tool we work on. At Automattic, I spend all of my day work­ing on user sup­port. Helping peo­ple pub­lish on the web is what I do. To that end these work­shops were refresh­ing. I had the oppor­tu­nity to help every­one. From eleven-years old to a sev­enty they all walked away with a great look­ing blog.

I’m clean­ing up the out­line we used for each work­shop into a cur­ricu­lum of sorts that could be used by any­one to run their own new user work­shop. The more events like these we can hold the bet­ter WordPress will become.

Treehouse. A fas­ci­nat­ing new startup from Ryan Carson. It seeks to teach the basics of web design, devel­op­ment, or iOS pro­gram­ming to any­one. The videos look really well done and there’s quizzes at the end of each ses­sion. I plan on sign­ing up this week­end and see­ing how things go.

The race to platform education

Learning man­age­ment sys­tems, author­ing tools, and per­sonal learn­ing envi­ron­ments don’t quite get the “it’s the plat­form, stu­pid” aspect of the inter­net. Most of the tools we have avail­able today in edu­ca­tion allow us to cre­ate con­tent within a sys­tem. What a plat­form enables is very dif­fer­ent; it enables the exten­sion of a system.

George Siemens — The race to plat­form education

When I’m learn­ing quickly every­thing is great. I feel good about myself and my abil­i­ties and I throw myself into learn­ing as much as I can.

On the other hand when I’m learn­ing slowly (hit­ting a “plateau”) I often get frus­trated or dis­cour­aged. Nothing I try seems to speed up my ascent out of these plateaus. It seems like the only thing that works is time and prac­tice of what I already know.

I think the rea­son for this is that once I learn a bunch of new con­cepts my brain needs some time to process them. I can learn the con­cepts and use them if I con­cen­trate, but it’s not effort­less. I think the rea­son I finally start learn­ing quickly again after some time is that I’ve inter­nal­ized the pre­vi­ous con­cepts and now I can move on to more dif­fi­cult ones which build on the pre­vi­ous ones.

Steve Losh - On Learning and Teaching.

Construction of space in computer labs

I was read­ing this arti­cle about online courses on the MindShift blog today. It starts off with this image.

What a hor­ri­bly depress­ing vision of a com­puter lab. While it is how the lab in my high school and those at Whitman were set up it nev­er­the­less seems like such an utter fail­ure at cre­at­ing a place where stu­dents can col­lab­o­rate around dig­i­tal content.

In addi­tion to the great fire­wall prob­lem of web access in schools per­haps a large rea­son why online courses and dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives fail is because they are forced into spaces like this.

This is what makes me most excited about the role iPads could play in schools. The oppo­site of a desk­top machine, an iPad would allow stu­dents to engage with con­tent with­out hav­ing to sit in straight rows with noth­ing in front of them but a monitor.

If a school could cre­ate socially designed spaces for their com­put­ers they might be sur­prised by the type of learn­ing that happens.

The attention-span myth

Virginia Heffernan dis­putes the tra­di­tional notion of an attention-span. Good to see some­one con­front Nicholas Carr’s notion that tech­nol­ogy causes brain dam­age.

I’m sur­prised that any­one ven­tures so far into this thicket of sophistry. I get stuck much ear­lier in the equa­tion. Everyone has an atten­tion span: really? And really again: an atten­tion span is a free­stand­ing entity like a boxer’s reach, exist­ing inde­pen­dently of any news­pa­per or chess game that might engage or repel it, and which might be mea­sured by the psychologist’s equiv­a­lent of a tailor’s tape?

If mate­r­ial is engag­ing peo­ple will focus on it, regard­less of what their sup­posed attention-spans are.