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Ten IT Concepts That Non-IT People Don't Get

Since I "work with computers" I tend to get asked to do fair amount of unofficial technical support for family and neighbours. I've noticed that the same confusions about IT crop up again and again. Here's my top ten.

(Note that due to my background this is going to be Windows-centric. Please don't take this to mean that I think Windows PCs are unfriendly - it's just I don't know enough about other systems to be able to comment. I also don't want to come across as elitist - if non-IT people don't understand something, that's not because they're dumb - it's because we haven't made computer systems obvious enough.)

Click or Double-Click1. When to Click and When to Double-Click

This one is a continual source of annoyance to IT people, and especially to those in support. It seems obvious to us which should be used when, but before you get mad with the user you're helping, consider this: can you make rules for when to click and when to double-click? Why do you double-click an icon to perform the action, but only single-click a button? What if Windows is set to "single click to open an item"?

Add into the mix the close cousin right-clicking, together with triple-clicks in text editors, double-single-clicks to rename, and of course modified clicks (holding down control or shift), and I think confusion is the correct response.

Folder2. Hierarchical Folders

Hierarchical folders are a great idea - don't get me wrong - but they're a good example of a neat metaphor overextended and hence confused. Most people are familiar with cardboard folders that can store bits of paper - and equally most people are happy to store their files in folders on their PC. Where it all goes wrong is with folders within folders, as this very rarely happens in the real world. Many users are simply unaware that they can create additional folders inside "My Documents" - hence the usual tendency to find hundreds or even thousands of files, all at the same folder level.

Making the problem even worse is the fact that "Save As" and "Open" dialogs often look nothing like the standard file explorer. This makes it more difficult to mentally link the save operation with the save location. This leads to the common problem of a user "losing" all their files - when in fact the "open" dialog has for some reason defaulted to another directory, and hence shows a different list of files to those the user was expecting.

(And don't even get me started on the fact that folders like "My Documents" appear in TWO locations in the folder tree - the physical one that users can't find or recognise, and the virtual one which isn't supported by all applications).

Recycle3. Using Add/Remove Programs

I need to clarify here. When a user wants to remove a program they chose to install, they head over to Add/Remove Programs - no problems. I've found however that when it's software they didn't install (or didn't intentionally install) - there's a problem. Messages that pop-up on start-up, unwanted system tray announcements, even auto-starting applications - these are all a source of annoyance, and often there's no obvious way to associate the offender with the appropriate entry in Add/Remove Programs. Often trialware pops up nag screens at startup, giving the user the option to purchase it - but without an option to uninstall.

Even worse is the case where a user wants to keep the application, just not have it launch at startup. There are many different ways an application can hook into the startup sequence, and most of them are inaccessible unless you're comfortable using something like msconfig (which, let's face it, non-IT people aren't).

Sony Vaio4. Installing Bundled Software Hurts

IT people know that bundled software (aka "crapware") isn't included for our benefit - it's generally a way hardware manufactures or system builders lower costs by basically pushing unwanted adverts for unwanted products onto your machine, in the hope that you won't be able to uninstall them, and will finally buy them (see item #3 above).

Unfortunately a standard user assumes that if a hardware item comes with a disk, that disk is there for a good reason - and so installs the lot. Sometimes this is just an annoyance, but sometimes it's more sinister - bundled software often stops the PC functioning correctly. The worst offenders seem to be the software that comes with wireless network adapters. For some reason they all want to turn off Window's standard wireless zero-configuration system, and install their own. Sadly, their own offerings often don't work (especially if they were written pre-XP) and the user is left with a completely non-functioning wireless system. Had the user simply plugged in the hardware and let Windows do the rest, it probably would have worked. The instructions said to install the software - and possibly stung by all the geeks who kept telling them to "RTFM" - they did so.

Firefox5. That There Is A Choice Of Software

Odds are that you're reading this on Firefox - or if not, as a reader of a coding blog, you at least know the name of the browser you're using. This almost certainly isn't the case for the majority of PC users - they don't use a browser, they use the internet (or if not the internet, then they use msn, facebook, google, or whatever). Most people simply use the browser as a means to an end. The same goes for music players, email clients (generally dictated by their ISP), and anti-virus (generally the one with the biggest display in the local PC shop).

Unfortunately this means that when things go wrong, or go expensive, or go ad-ridden, these users aren't even aware they can change. Adverts on the web are annoying, but if you have no idea you can change your browser and install an ad-blocker, you have no choice but to suffer them. This also means that poor software can survive in the marketplace - since for correctly positioned, pushed, and marketed software, there ceases to even be a marketplace.

Windows Update6. What Updates Do

While writing this article - the first two weeks of September - my laptop has installed updates on the 1st, 4th, 9th, 11th and 14th of the month. Since this is a rather slow laptop, that means that if I choose to install them, I have to put up with bad performance, and if I don't, I have to put up with repeated nagging. Even when I do install them, I know that in another couple of days they'll be back.

I know updates are necessary - but do we need them every three days? Do they need to be quite so slow? And do they have to nag when I'm trying to use my PC - couldn't they wait a while to see if the screensaver kicks in, as that's likely to be a better time than now, now, now.

Money7. Software Licensing

We need to put aside a discussion of whether software should be free or not for this one, and let's just assume that people are happy paying for software for now.

The problem is that buying software isn't really like buying other goods - what you buy isn't the box, or the media, but a license. With normal goods, once you've purchased it, you keep hold it, and if it turns out to be an illegal purchase, someone (eg the police) have to come and physically remove it. With software, if the vendor decides it's not a valid purchase, then the software magically stops working, with no easy recourse for the customer.

I've come across many cases of people who thought they were legitimately purchasing software, but in fact weren't - either purchasing from someone who was knowingly selling illegal software, or purchasing from someone who believed they had the right to sell, but didn't. Either way, the honest software purchasers had no immediate way of knowing the software they were buying wasn't legit.

To be fair, most software vendors are taking steps to improve this - although the cynic in me says this is mainly to protect revenue streams, not customers.

RAM8. What Memory (RAM) Is For

I think most computer users have a pretty good idea what disk storage is for - that's where their files are stored. What I think users have a bigger problem with is volatile memory. It's very difficult to describe to a non-techie what RAM actually does - just saying "it's what running programs use" doesn't give a full description by any means.

Making the problem worse is that fact that most consumer PCs are sold with the bare minimum of RAM. Users can easily see that they have a good amount of disk storage free, but it's more difficult to get a feeling for whether they have enough RAM. Most users simply don't realise that computers don't have to be slow, and don't have to spend all their time swapping virtual memory.

Network9. How To Use Networking

As computers become cheaper, many households now have more than one. As that happens, this question is asked of me more and more often: "I've saved my files on the office computer; how can I get them on the laptop?". The first couple of times, I set up a simple home network and created shortcuts to shared folders on each desktop. Unfortunately, this didn't really cut it.

I think the main problem is that home networking fundamentally doesn't fit in with most people's work patterns - if they're working on the laptop (say), why would the office computer be switched on? Having to leave both computers on just doesn't fit. From the user's point of view, sometimes the files are there (when the other computer is on), and sometimes they're not.

I've found that solutions like Dropbox are much more palatable - while all the home computers might not be switched on, the internet connection almost always is. The networking in this case is transparent - the user doesn't have to do a thing - and the files are magically up-to-date on all their computers.

Computer10. The Display Is Not The Computer

For a long time, the sheer size of CRT monitors led many users to assume the monitor was the computer, and if they thought about the box below the desk at all, they thought it was "the hard-drive". Now that monitors are much slimmer, people understand that the monitor is just a display mechanism, and the computer actually is under the desk.

Where it all goes a little confusing is when the computer in question isn't near the display in front of the user - remote desktop, remote assistance, and the like. Even more flummoxing seems to be the notion of servers in general - for some reason a computer without a display unit doesn't seem to be easily understandable. Despite the familiarity of the web, the idea that accessing a website involves a computer, often running a familar operating system, somewhere remote, seems a difficult one.

Any More?

Have I missed any other concepts that are repeatedly misunderstood? Any common problems you have to deal with? Let me know!