Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 6: Mindfully Learning Technology

Has this ever happened to you? You go to a familiar website or app, only for it to show up with a brand new interface. You stare at it in confusion, wondering where all the familiar visual landmarks have gone, and what new, convoluted way they’ve come up with to do a simple task. Maybe IT has rolled out a new “software solution” to your machine, replacing an older system that you’ve gotten used to. They promise things will be easier and faster, but all you can see is yet another monkey wrench thrown into your machinery. When this happens, it drives all of us nuts to some degree or another, even if it’s from all the people around us complaining.

A while back, I wrote a response to an article on how kids being unable to use computers. I identified two types of knowledge on how to use technology: task-based and skill-based. Task-based knowledge is the most common way people learn how to use technology. Task-based users establish routines for what they want to accomplish, using cues like the shape of icons, physical location of buttons, and familiar situations. Naturally, these routines are going to be thrown off with even a small change to an interface. A complete redesign? Then they have to start all over again, and the user will not be happy.

In contrast, you have skill-based users. Instead of memorizing specific steps to accomplish a task, they learn the system Itself. Their knowledge can be applied to all sorts of tasks, because they know how to explore an interface and recognize how actions they perform for one task can be applied to a different, related task. When presented with a new interface to a system, the skill-based user might need a moment to adjust, but they’ll be able to relate the new interface to the mental model in their head. Task-based users navigate by the map. Skill-based users navigate by the terrain.

Most of us fall somewhere in between these extremes. Maybe on our home machines, we’re skill-based speed machines, who can take every curveball that app designers throw our way. At work, however, we’re still trying to get used to the new CRM two years in, and dreading the day IT finally rolls out the next update. Maybe we’re a whiz on our smartphone, but trying to get anything done on the home PC is an exercise in frustration. Or, maybe it’s the other way around: the PC is a breeze, but your smartphone is a frustrating, Fisher-Price toy.

How do we bridge this gap? Through mindful learning.

Often, when we’re presented with a new piece of technology to learn, it’s in one of two circumstances. Either it’s something we chose for ourselves that we’re excited to start playing with it, or it’s something imposed from above, leaving us considerably less excited. The more interested we are in learning something, the more likely we are to explore, play, and find multiple ways of doing the same thing, the more we focus on the skill of using it. When something is assigned to us, however, we’re more interested in just completing the task, and building a fragile routine that breaks when a change is introduced. The research backs this up:

"[M]indfulness theory suggests that some staples of information systems design, such as the transfer of routines between contexts, the use of highly specific instructions, and the assumption that information gathering necessarily leads to greater certainty, can hinder mindfulness with significant detrimental consequences…

“Users’ willingness to uncritically accept software-generated results demonstrates how easy it is for systems to promote routinized, mindless use that can ultimately undermine reliable performance.”

Reliability, Mindfulness, and Information Systems

Boom. The less we think about the systems we use, the more likely we are to just accept the results, or give up when faced with difficult tasks. Not an effective way of using our devices, but a boon for the freelance IT support industry.

Here’s an example of mindful learning from my own life: in college, over a decade ago, I decided to study Computer Science. I wanted to learn how to program, and—in time—make computer games. Despite my interest in the subject, the top-down pedagogy of my school’s CS program made learning a chore. I passed CS101 by the skin of my teeth. The next level course, however, I ended up retaking it before failing out—but that’s another story. Last year, when I began work on Just Do the Thing, I found the learning process much more pleasant. This was because I was directing myself, building what I wanted to build, figuring it out as I went, and using Google when things got hairy.

In other words, when we want to learn, we do it in a skill-based mindset. When we have to learn, we do it in a task-based mindset. Mindful learning only happens when we want to learn. Making that leap is hard. If there’s a crappy application or an unpleasant process you need to learn for your job, mustering up the desire to learn it is not an easy task. It doesn’t help that a lot of technology training and systems design, aren’t conducive to mindful, skill-based learning.

We can, however, shift from a mindless, task and routine-based approach to using our technology, into a mindful, skill-based approach. It just requires stepping out of ourselves and our routines for a moment to see exactly what we’re doing. If you’ve ever gained new clarity into a workflow after talking with your tech support representative, you’ve experienced this first hand.

“Interaction with technical support personnel helps users momentarily transition to mindful consideration of their situation. This shifts users’ focus from the goal to the process, increases the salience of technical details and specific actions, and forces them to consciously attend to the current state of the system (as opposed to the expected state)…”

Reliability, Mindfulness, and Information Systems

But you don’t need Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy to knock you out of a routine. We can do it ourselves, with a little bit of effort and awareness of our intention. Redesigns and new applications give us opportunity to re-evaluate the mental systems we have created for our tools, and find ways to do better. All the mindfulness in the world won’t fix a bad interface, but it can make it easier for us to deal with one.

Computers may be unpredictable boxes of change, but we can learn how to adapt to those changes and roll with the punches. A good place to start is to shake up your own workflows. Find another way to do a task you do every day, even if it takes longer. Explore the features already built in to your software. Heck, try reading the fu… friendly manual, or at least the in-app help when it’s available. These are little things, but they can quickly dislodge the blocks to understanding what we’re doing. Only then can we start working with our technology instead of just using it.