Buxton, W. (1995). If you have a problem with your computer, is it really your problem? Guest Editorial, Toronto Globe & Mail, June 12, 1995, p. A3.

If you have a problem with your computer, is it really your problem?

Bill Buxton

In 1988 my wife got a new PC for her office and wanted to install a new spreadsheet program (Lotus 123). She tried and failed. Being the self-confident professor of computer science that I am, I immediately jumped into the fray. I had great expectations of the rewards to come as a result of my technological prowess. To make a long story short, the full extent of this prowess amounted to giving the sage advice, "Hire a consultant."

My ensuing "reward" was thus reduced to some minor reaffirmation of my own creativity - reflected in the innovation of my explanation as to why it was the system's fault and not mine that I had failed.

Now the reason that I'm telling you any of this is to find a way to beg the following question: Was it a lack of training that culminated in this dismal performance? On reflection, the answer is yes. But, remembering my claim to creativity, probably not in the way that you might think.

Let me explain by referring to a speech that I heard given by Lloyd Axworthy (at the annual meeting of the Information Technology Association of Canada). The focus of the speech was on training. On the one hand, it addressed the need for training in the information age. On the other, it had to do with how these same information technologies could serve as an important vehicle for the delivery of such training. In most ways, I have no problem with this. It's hard to argue against the value of learning.

But, perhaps characteristically, this kind of talk makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I think that this is due to some implicit, "we know, and we had best educate them" sensibility that lies behind such calls for literacy building and education. In my mind, my discomfort was rooted back in my abortive efforts with Lotus 123. Stated more clearly, my concern was the basic assumption that it is the general public which is in most need of training and literacy, as opposed to those "educated professionals" who design the technology in the first place.

Does the general cry for technology training place the primary onus for learning in the right place? Yes, there are 6 million functionally illiterate Canadians. And when it comes to technological literacy, the numbers are much higher. Yes, this is a serious issue, and we should be concerned. But rather than read this situation as a cry for technological training, I see it more as a demand for reshaping the form of the technology itself.

The design and conceptualization of the products and services emerging from the telecommunications and information technology companies can be and need to be recast to better fit and reflects the skills and habits of the communities that they are intended to serve. Simply stated, tools should fit the users, not the other way around.

So who then needs the training and who are really the illiterate? Is it the 6 million Canadians who are not functional with written language? Is it those who are not computer literate, the "cyberphobic", or computer novices? Or, is it the 90-plus percent of computer science and electrical engineering students who graduate from university without ever having developed a computer system that was used by another person, much less one of the above mentioned 6 million? Or is it the collection of Information Technology and Telecom executives who are responsible for the bewildering products and services that are being released to the general public?

These executives all agree that it is the services, functionality and how they are delivered to the end user that will make or break the emerging market of the "information highway." And yet, these very same executives invest virtually nothing in the human / social / behavioural planning of their systems, relative to what they spend on the planning of the technology itself (not to mention its capitalization). Then, they hire illiterate engineers and computer scientists to design and build their systems. The problems are in the system, not in the technology.

Training and literacy? Great. But for once, let's start at the top. Human centered design requires literacy and training in human factors and behavioural issues, not just technology. And that literacy isn't adequately reflected in the boardrooms of our telecom and info-technology industries or the technology departments of our universities.

Without that literacy the sector won't grow, and we will have missed a great opportunity to develop the real potential buried in these otherwise arcane technologies.