How to Communicate with Computer Plebeians

by Modis on December 19, 2011

It might appear that everyone has computer knowledge, but this just isn’t the case. On top of the fact that there’s a generational gap concerning technology, there are also the people who know how to use computers but don’t fully understand how they function.

And guess what? They’ll need help if their computers stop working. So how can you do this without all of the information going over their heads? It doesn’t matter if the people in need only use the computer for emailing or for playing Spider Solitaire — there are ways to explain computer concepts to them.

Determine level of understanding. 

Whether you’re assisting your dad or your coworker, you’ll need an understanding of what the issue is and how much the person knows about computers in general. You’ll usually be able to tell simply based on how he or she presents the issue.

For example, if people say, “I clicked on that thing and then there was a flash and now everything’s slow,” you’ll know that they mainly understand how to operate a computer but don’t have the knowledge of why these actions work.

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can start getting into the right mindset as to how you’re going to explain the steps that need to be taken — whether you can speak as if you were conversing with an IT professional or as if you were conversing with someone who’s never seen a computer before.

Decide how much they need to know.  

Once you’ve established how much the person knows about computers, the next thing to do is figure out what he or she needs to know in order to solve the problem and hopefully keep it from happening again.

On one hand, if you think this is an isolated issue that won’t become a problem in the future, you can choose to simply tell the person what to do without explaining why. You can say click this, install that, without providing any background or explanation.

However, if you think this person would benefit from understanding the concepts at hand, you might want to spell it all out for him or her in an easy-to-comprehend way. Consider each point that’s important and get ready to describe them in layman’s terms.

Use analogies.

Analogies make explaining anything unfamiliar much more relatable and digestible.  But don’t dive right into spouting similes if the person hasn’t even asked a specific question yet. Once the user’s expressed an interest in learning something, think of a way to make it relevant to him or her.

For example, to explain the difference between the hard drive and the computer’s memory, say that the hard drive is like your kitchen pantry and the memory is like your kitchen counter: the counter (memory) holds the items you’re working with while the pantry holds what you’ll use later.

Be careful with how you share the analogies. Using the wrong tone can make it sound like you view the other person as stupid or inferior. Make sure to keep a conversational tone going on, and explain that analogies helps you understand, as well. Which brings us to the next point….

Don’t be condescending. 

No matter what route you end up choosing, make sure you don’t sound condescending. The users might already hate the fact that they have to sit there and listen to computer talk for half an hour; if you sound patronizing, they’ll be even more turned off to the process and even less cooperative.

Not everyone has the same experience with computers as you do, so be patient. Think what it would be like if you asked a writer what foreshadowing was — the writer might be surprised you don’t know, but in going back to the basics, the writer can break it down for you. (Hey, look: I used an analogy!)

As described in the previous section, a lot of how you portray yourself is communicated through your tone, and your tone will sound patronizing if you view the person as lacking intelligence. Try to be more empathetic, and your voice will reflect this.

Remaining patient and trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes will really help you teach them more effectively. It’s especially difficult over the phone, but if you take it slow and work one step at a time, you’ll be able to help the person solve the issue and know how to address it if it ever arises again.

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