Software can drive you to distraction

Barry Dickson

Having worked for a variety of organisations, I have become used to having to adapt to a wide range of software packages and assorted technologies. As many of you know, I often like to use car analogies to demonstrate my points and hopefully make them more accessible for many. So is your seat belt fastened? Here we go…

For those of you who drive, I see adopting new software as similar to hiring a car that you are unfamiliar with. You know the basics from your previous driving experience (NB - don’t try to hire a car without prior driving experience!!!) you are (fairly!) confident that it will get you to your planned destination with the minimum of fuss, and hopefully without bumping into anything on the way!

However, you need to familiarise yourself with the layout of the essential set up of the car before you move off, including how to adjust the seat and mirrors, where the light and various other switches are and how to get some decent music playing for the journey! You then set off on your journey, fully expecting to be able to get to your destination safely and in a reasonable time. This is essentially the approach that I use when faced with new software or technology!

I don’t think anyone that I know has ever read the manual before they set off with their hired car (or new software!). You should be able to get a long way on your journey before you start to come across particular things that may require a quick look at the manual. This might be for example, where the fuel filler cap gets released, or how to get under the bonnet! Not something that you needed to know before you set off and definitely not something that should have stopped you from starting the journey.

So if we applied this to software, what does that look like? It’s basically about making a start by learning the absolute basics to get you on your way, and then drilling into the “Help” section when you come across something that you need to do but are not quite sure how this particular package needs you to do it. The Help sections are like the “back seat drivers” that always seem to know it all but can be quite annoying! However, most software nowadays is relatively robust and other than the occasional bump or minor crash, it should be pretty tolerant of new users’ learning curves.

To support this, I always recommend that colleagues who are starting out with new software take a “test drive” to see how far their existing skills and knowledge can get them. If they do this, then when they get to either formal instruction or reading the manual, they are starting with some knowledge, but accepting that there will be huge gaps. Your questions then are much more focussed on specific “how to” and your baseline understanding usually helps to contextualise the answer. Going back to the car, if you don’t know when you need to use the indicator, then why bother with the indicator switch? (A question I often ask other drivers from inside my car when I am actually on the road!).

So I am using this time to explore some of the backroads of the software that we use at QMU. Sometimes the journey is more interesting than the destination, but travel enriches you! So don’t be put off by the software or technology. Take “short trips” at first before you attempt a long drive! Read the road signs, use a “map” if you have one, but most importantly, enjoy the journey and arrive back at the University with new found confidence in your expanded and enhanced skills.

And don’t be afraid to ask for directions along the way…

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