How to Write Tech How-Tos for Idiots

…Idiots Like Me.

I’m a tech idiot.

100% ID-10T. I own it.

I often feel guilty for this. As if it’s my problem that I see the world differently. I feel embarrassment to the edge of shame for not understanding what I know is pretty easy stuff for so many people.

I’ve tried to get better. I promise.

Yesterday I posted a picture and link to Instagram. I tagged some people in it hoping for a bit of interaction. Then I realized I’d posted it to the wrong account. I immediately took it down and tried to repost it in the correct account.

As I was doing so I received a message from one of the people I’d tagged.

“Hey! I can’t find the link. Can you send me a PM?”

I had an immediate anxiety reaction. Sweat beaded up a bit on my brow and I got that uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. No joke. I felt like a loser.

I responded, explained my embarrassing issues, and fixed it.

It took me about 30 minutes, and I’m still not sure I did it right.

Obviously I need people like you who can show me how to do tech stuff. Be gentle as you do, because empathy is key to a successful teacher/student relationship.

There is however, one main rule of thumb you should follow when it comes to teaching idiots like me how to navigate the tech world. It is this-

What comes as intuitive to you is not intuitive to us. The minutia matters, so don’t leave it out.

Let me illustrate with an area where I don’t feel like an idiot — car maintenance. Let’s pretend I’m telling you how to change your oil.

You’ve found my imaginary how-to video on Youtube in which I’ve told you how to determine the correct oil to buy, the correct filter to buy, the correct oil drain pan to buy, and if necessary, the correct ramps to buy. Then I slide under the car to put the oil pan in place and tell you the next step is to drain the oil. The next frame you see is of shiny black oil flowing quietly into the perfectly placed oil pan.

There’s a good chance you want to hit me in the head with a wrench, for one of many reasons:

  1. I neglected to tell you to place the ramps in front of the vehicle and how to carefully drive the car onto the ramps. (Therefore you may have driven off the front end of the ramps and created quite a mess for yourself.)
  2. I did not tell you where the oil pan is. (Forcing you to guess.)
  3. If you’re lucky enough to find the oil pan, I did not tell you where the drain plug for the oil pan is. (Again, forcing you to guess and pray that you’re not about to drain some other important fluid.)
  4. I did not tell you how to remove the drain plug from the fancy oil pan so the oil actually drains into it. (Wait, what?! We drain oil from the oil pan into another oil pan? What the what?)
  5. I did not tell you the correct style wrench to use. (So you round off the corners with an adjustable wrench instead.)
  6. I did not tell you how to get more leverage to remove the drain plug. (Why would you need more leverage?)

All of the above comes intuitively to me. I imagine a lot of the above would come intuitively to you as well — like the drain plug, for instance. Obviously you’d need to remove a drain plug for the oil to flow out, right? But what if you’re not sure which is the oil plug, which is the transmission fluid, etc…

If you have no idea how to change oil, the smallest of details matter. Your vehicle’s life depends on it. Literally.

There are professionals who can change your oil, even while you sit in your car and wait. Frankly, most of them are worth your money if you have no interest in working with your hands. (Here’s hoping they don’t nickel and dime you for other unneeded maintenance too.)

But I believe there is something to be said for learning the ins and outs of how a car works, so learning to change your own oil is a worthy effort.

I imagine you would agree this is also true when it comes to, say, how to create your own website.

As you techy-types likely know, there is no shortage of ways (or shall I say programs or whatever? Platforms? I really don’t know) to build a website. I chose Elementor and began to watch videos about how to use it.

Specifically, this video. I was able to follow the instructor for a bit, and then all of the sudden I couldn’t.

My screen didn’t look like his screen. It should have but it didn’t. I watched the video over and over again. I listened closely. Just when I was getting ready to put my oil-changing wrench through my computer monitor I saw it.

Right there at the :58 second point. (That’s right, less than a minute in.)

There was an extra mouse-click he failed to include in his verbal instructions.

It was just a little click. No big deal. One little thing he did so he could continue on with his instructions. That would have been fine except that I hadn’t done the same little click he did.

Because he, the instructor, hadn’t indicated I needed to.

It’s as if didn’t remove the drain plug so my oil couldn’t flow.

On this occasion, Elementor lost a customer— me.

I have a friend who’s pretty good at this computer stuff. He may or may not be the reason I chose the oil change as an example. Not long ago he was bragging about a successful oil change on Facebook. I was very proud of him.

But I can also see him grinning a bit right now with a sort of bemused look on his face saying, “Dude…I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not that hard.”

He’s right. It’s not that hard, which is what makes it all the more frustrating for idiots like me.

But it’s also not intuitive. You must account for the parts you experience as intuitive.

Here’s how to avoid this pitfall, if you’re making or writing a “How-to” about anything.

  1. Write the instructions
  2. Give them to an idiot to use to accomplish the task at hand.
  3. Observe the experience for the idiot.
  4. Adjust your how-to accordingly.

I’ve picked on you tech people, but the same pitfall occurs any time we try to teach people something they’re not familiar with. We can apply the four steps above to any instructional experience.

Now that we’ve got the oil draining properly. Let’s talk about how to remove the oil filter. That’s a whole new level of accomplishment.

(I was able to pull together a website I’m happy with. You can find it at www.jeffreyscottwriting.com .)

Freelance Writer. Nonstop Thinker. Lover of life. www.jeffreyscottwriting.com

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