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Ease of Learning

An innovation isn’t any good if it’s a bad teacher.
December 1, 2002

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?

Some innovators go to ridiculous lengths to prompt awareness of ways to use their products. Microsoft’s Office software suite had its noxious dancing paper clip-since retired, according to the company’s Web site-which dispensed minimally useful advice whenever it detected a user having difficulties or presumed to know what the user was trying to do. Then again, the world’s most influential software company also created “wizards,” software templates that help users comprehend the process of preparing PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. Using the wizard function, users can learn on their own.

It is surprising that the marketplace provides so few dynamic software-based tutorials that inspire the inner autodidact. And one might think telephone companies would offer toll-free calls to voice-activated help systems that explain how to get more functionality out of their phones. What about automobile makers? Shouldn’t their high tech dashboards give some clues about how they can be customized? Nope. Just read the manual.

It’s shockingly apparent that too many innovators rely not on better training sessions and documentation to support their users’ learning curves, but only on Web pages that list frequently asked questions. The rise of third-party training consultancies, outsourced help desks and customer support, and rigorously negotiated service-level agreements is evidence of innovators’ intent to dump the costs of teaching and learning on their customers. The economics of innovation adoption are destructively distorted.

This has nothing to do with making innovations easier to use. After all, a bicycle is easy to use; but learning how to ride one isn’t so easy-especially if you’re an adult. Do you want to be taught how? Or do you want to learn how on your own?

Whether they like it or not, all innovators are service businesses. In fact, innovators with truly clever ideas have no choice but to be educators and trainers, either through the medium of their innovations or through the medium of social interaction. They need to recognize that if they really want to overcome customer resistance, they need to marry ease of use with ease of learning. Encouraging users to read the directions just doesn’t cut it. Innovations in learning and teaching will determine which innovations pass the test with customers and which flunk.

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