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My cell phone has taught me nothing. On the other hand, my Palm personal digital assistant has been an excellent tutor. Both gadgets are loaded with features I have yet to tap. Both come with instruction manuals thicker than the devices themselves.

But unlike my phone, the Palm helps me learn how to use it better. The cleverly designed Graffiti training function encourages me to practice my digital penmanship so that I can enter data faster. My cell phone gives me virtually no cues or clues for using it. I have to read the poorly written manual or badger friends. I am sure that I use less than 20 percent of the phone’s capabilities. For example, I have yet to figure out how to accomplish a three-way call that doesn’t simultaneously disconnect everyone. I’m not that stupid.

Not to worry: this is not yet another column preaching the virtues of human interface design, convenience, and ease of use. Who would argue against good design? The issue here is subtler and, frankly, more important. Innovators usually focus their resources on getting people and organizations to use their innovations. They typically invest far less capital and ingenuity in improving the ways individuals and institutions learn to use those innovations. That distinction is enormous.

All innovators aren’t teachers or trainers; however, anyone who adopts an innovation surely has to be a learner. Even the most transparent and intuitive designs present profound learning challenges. A bicycle practically begs to be ridden. But for most people, learning to ride a bicycle is (literally) a pain in the butt.

As instructors and trainers are painfully aware, the quality of teaching often has nothing to do with the quality of learning. There is a difference between teaching people and helping them learn. Riding a bike may look easy, but you have to fall down before you get it. Helping a child learn to ride a bike can be a charmingly exhilarating experience. Teaching an adolescent or adult to bicycle is more often an exercise in mutual frustration. Skiing and windsurfing pose comparable difficulties.

To be sure, surfing the Net is easier than surfing Hawaii. But software developers confront stark choices whenever they use innovation as the lure to change how people use the latest version of a Web browser. Should the developers produce an elaborate video tutorial? Or would they get a better return on their investment of time and resources by designing the browser so that it is faster and its intricacies more intuitive and easily understood? In other words, should end users be seen as students who need to be trained or as autodidacts who are ready, willing, and able to teach themselves? Is it the innovator’s fault or the user’s fault when a proffered innovation isn’t used as well as expected?

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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