Tips for Dealing With Inexperienced Computer Users

Geek!This is Michael Trimm’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

As Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker in the Spiderman story: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This phrase does not only apply to crime fighting web-slingers, but to us computer enthusiasts as well (a.k.a. geeks). Those of us who understand technology and have mastered the art and science behind making the computer work for us are oftentimes approached by those who don’t quite understand how their machines work. Although it is sometimes tough to explain something for the “umpteenth” time, we have a responsibility to educate those who know less about their technology than we do. Here are some tips for dealing with those who aren’t quite as tech savvy as you are.


It is all-too-easy to lose your cool when dealing with frustrating situations, so patience is vital. The seemingly-trivial questions and answers mean a lot to the person you are helping. At one point, you had similar questions about the stuff you are now teaching others. Don’t get too frustrated when you are asked the same question multiple times – after a short while, they will get the hang out of it. Your patience will pay off and soon they will be able to help others.

Details, Details, Details

When assisting someone who is new to using technology or is not technically inclined, you can never use too many details. As a technology specialist, when I support some customers, I have to tell them the smallest details, including press “Run” for the program I told them to open. Other users may know what needs to be done, but are awaiting your guidance. The more details you use on the location of items (e.g., Control Panel, System Tray) or on the specific process, the better.

Teach them to Fish

There is an old adage that is popular in my office. “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” We try to use that in our support methods. If we just do the task for the user, or walk them through it every time, then they will just keep coming back to us and asking for help. If we have them do the work, look it up themselves, or perform the task on their own, it is more likely that they will actually learn it and not need to keep asking you for more and more help.

Let Them Make Mistakes

These days, there is almost nothing that cannot be undone on the computer (you do keep a backup, right?). Allow the user to explore and play around a little bit. Don’t hover over their shoulder while they are performing the task (my mom taught me that one the hard way). If they make a mistake, it’s generally easy to undo it (plus, you should have a backup and they should have a limited account). Most people learn better from experience than from reading a book or being lectured.

Keeping these simple tips in mind will help you to stay sane while supporting somebody who is new or inexperienced in computing. It will also allow them to begin to learn the joys of computing.

59 thoughts on “Tips for Dealing With Inexperienced Computer Users”

  1. All of the above are very good points. Patience was labeled a virtue for a reason. Sometimes if you sit back and actually take the time to be patient, answer questions in depth and let the other person do the work, it will make their day. It will even make you feel better, most people anyway, that you helped someone with something they may not have experience or great skill with.

  2. These are all good things to consider when dealing with and aiding those who are of a lesser experience level with concern to computers. Also important is to introduce these people to other resources that can aid them, such as books, classes, or better, some sort of interactive or hands-on activity. Help them understand the inner components by allowing them to take apart that old junker that you were going to throw out. Let them see the fun things like a 5 inch floppy, or even better, an 8 inch. Show them the different advances we have made by showing them some ancient hardware such as motherboards with ISA or a SIMM chip from the 80’s. Each of these is a fun way to learn because it is interesting to see how horribly fat and clunky old computer technology is and allows the newbie to better appreciate the modern systems that they grapple with today.

  3. Excellent points. From the perspective of user who sometimes has to call for support, the comment on patience can’t be stressed enough. Lose patience and the user’s frustration level wil only increase making it difficult for the user to follow directions, much less comprehend any concepts that are being explained.

  4. I really like the article. I loved the spiderman blurb at the beginning. I also like the fish part. Those are all important qualities that can be applied across the board to many jobs and things in life. I think it is important to recognize that letting people make mistakes is an important part of the learning process.

  5. This is a great article, very to-the-point. It is important to help those who aren’t as accustomed to technology; it can contribute to the world being a more efficient place. My grandmother always points out how great the idea of online shopping is, but is unable to do it because she’s so scared that she’s completely unable. I know that her life would be easier if she let her children or grandchildren teach her basic computer skills.

  6. good points! i certainly agree with the “teach them to fish” concept. i have personally found this a great way to learn new things, likewise, it is probably one of the most successful ways to teach computer skills.

  7. This is a very nice article. I wish all computer techs would read your four steps to helping out novice computer users. I am a novice computer user… Sad to say and if someone would teach me instead of doing things for me… I know I wouldn’t be AS novice Lol Keep up the good work

  8. I agree. It’s only more fun for the both of you when you follow a good-guy set of rules. What’s more fun than teaching and learning?

    I encourage personal experimentation. I give users that seem to have a grasp of things warnings as to what can happen, and then set them on their merry way for their tasks. My roommate wanted to dual-boot XP with his Mac, and I felt compelled only to tell him how Windows MBR works, why you need to use bootcamp and told him to back up his files. Much better than just sitting there and doing it myself (plus, I don’t have to sit there and do it myself!)

    I already learned patience because I have a mother that tends to need help doing simple things. I’ll get a call sometimes asking me why the screen looks funny, or why the computer is slow, or why the computer won’t turn on at all! 😀

  9. I really like the points you make about patience, that is definitely key. If my friend (who knows more about computers than i do) gave up on me when i was having trouble with my computer, I would never have been able to get anything done. I also completely agree with you on experience teaching better than lectures and books. Very well written!!

  10. Very well thought of.I’m thankful that u know so much about computers cause me computer always has something wrong with it and your able to help me get the problem fixed

  11. this article sure does help. patience is the number one thing that we all need to learn. if we dont have patience then it will just get worse for whoever is learning. this has some really good points and wished other computer users who are advanced would notice this article.

  12. Looks good and is informative. The only thing you might add is to try to inspire them to think logically, similar to a computer and understand it takes good input to get good output, ie.. garbage in is garbage out.

  13. There are so many people out there with computers who need a little assistance fixing problems but never enough people out there to help- so I am glad to see the idea of helping out in that way discussed. It just frustrates me to think of it as “dealing with” instead of helping. The comment about details- like telling someone to press ‘run’ just seem so condescending.
    On the other hand the author seems like a genuine kind person. He doesn’t just tell someone how to do something- he takes the time to actually teach them- and that is a skill that is very valuable to customers-

  14. Haha, how long did this take? 15 minutes? Not only would this barely span a double-spaced page in word, there’s absolutely no substance in this article at all. You don’t deserve a computer for this. Stop being such a comment-whore.

  15. I’m the most patient person in general. I don’t even have a problem being stuck in 4 hour traffic in these crazy Los Angeles freeways. I just have a hard time not getting frustrated and eventually angry with people who just don’t know!!
    I have a friend who used to ask me…”hey can I borrow your internet?” It’s not my internet!!! You can use my comp if, I’m assuming, that’s what you mean!!!
    I hate it when my sister, who I live with, loses connection and asks me…”hey is the ‘internet controller’ working?” Yes….she means the modem.
    These people just fire me up!!! It’s mainly my problem that I get so angry about it I guess…..

  16. Good article. It was interesting to me since I am usually the one who always needs the help with computers. The article was written in an easy to read manner. It reminded me of those SNL or Madd Tv skits where the computer guy made all the office people feel stupid when they did not know what the problems were with their computers. Glad to know you have patience, Mike!

  17. Excellent advice! Giving computer advice is getting even more difficult now, with differences between XP and Vista (and, pretty soon, a new Windows OS), PC and Mac, desktop and laptop…this article is a good reminder of how to keep tech help in perspective!

    I would, however, like to hear the author’s perspective on visually oriented “geeks;” as someone who relies on seeing the problem for myself (as opposed to having someone describe it to me over the phone; chances are, if they’re calling me for help, they’re not describing it for me in full detail anyways), what suggestions do you have for when I try to give tech support from afar?

    Good luck, I hope you win!

  18. GO FISH!

    That was perhaps the key piece of advice that I think more and more people should be using.
    My mom watches me teach her how to do something on the work computer and then gets so frustrated that she doesn’t know how to do it on her own computer. She tries to memorize “click on this–click on that–then this–and finally that” instead of understanding where things are on her computer.

    By fishing through their computer, new users will learn where things are and what things will likely aid them in performing what they want to get done.

  19. I think all your points are vary valid, especially the one about details. Many times I need every detail explained to me when dealing with new things. I also like your input on patience. Everyone like a person who is patient, no matter how many times they are asked the same question. I love your article and think it is very helpful and encouraging.

  20. I’d like to link this article on our technical support page at Time Warner Cable for all the Divisions for the Technical Support Agents to read…

    If anything could boost morale around the office, that just might do it.

  21. As one of the people who isnt as technology inclined as others, its nice to know there are some good “geeks” out there. Someone who wont just laugh at how…primitive some people’s skills are. These tips could really go for any kind of instruction. I think patience is of most importance the teacher to be most effective, even though its not the easiest to maintain. If everyone is upset and annoyed, nobody will listen and nothing will get fixed! All you aspiring geeks out there take note of this blog 🙂

  22. Great point that you must emphasize each and every step. The idea that you have to tell people to hit run, is important. 🙂

  23. Great article Michael. As a former IT professional at a public school I know very well what it is like to train others. Patience is the key word when working with 150 or so technology illiterate users as I have. Undoughtedly, a few of the gray hairs I have came from this experience. Mike, you made a good point when you said that we were all illiterate at one point in our careers.

  24. I definently agree with this article. I think the most valid and interesting point made was “Teach them to fish.” It will definently decrease the amount of frustration for the instructor if they can properly teach the technology user main points and big ideas that will help them know how to do the little things.
    Good job Michael!

  25. I’m glad you put patience first, because it is definitely the most important virtue when working with someone who is not computer savvy. And if you lose your patience with whomever you are working with, they will lose their patience as well. And if they are a customer you could well lose their business.

  26. These points should apply to ALL teachings not just computers. Patience is THE number one. The average person I believe is scared of any new technology abd must be guided gently into this world. I don’t believe in the ‘throw them in the water to teach them to swim’ method. This writer has an understanding of the teaching principles. Enjoyed the article. Wish it were longer.

  27. This article makes several excellent points. As one who is not technically inclined, I particularly agree with Michael’s statement that you can never use too many details. Just because something is basic to you doesn’t mean it’s basic to everyone. And I agree that people generally learn better through experience than through listening and/or reading. I’m certainly more apt to learn a task when my system admin. walks me through it than when he does it for me!

    Very insightful article, Michael. Good luck!

  28. Well done, i enjoy it. and just want to you know that this will help me cause i always have an issue with my computer. and everyone has there little things that help them and now i have many good luck and thanks

  29. Having been on both sides of the computer experience, I can vouch for patience being the key to actually learning and, hopefully, retaining the knowledge being imparted. Nice article.

  30. I think the comments in the article regarding fishing is perhaps the point I can relate to most. I feel that fishing allowed me to learn more and retain more than any instuctions I recieved or any things done for me.
    Of coutrse patience is necessary in most any learning situation.

  31. This pretty much sums up how to teach anything effectively. I think Michael not only hit upon some of the ways to effectively deal with inexperienced computer users, but also laid a nice groundwork for dealing with anyone who is a novice in other things as well.

  32. …I just forgot this as well, to go along with the fishing analogy. I prefer, build a man a fire and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life! 🙂

    Good luck Michael.

  33. I really enjoyed reading this article. I think this person clearly understands both sides of providing tech help. It’s such a confidence booster to be taught how to correct the problem rather than “just walked through it and having no idea what you did to fix it.” (Especially, when others ask you) It sounds as if your company has a good practice….sign me up.

  34. Being patient is correct, so many times I have had problems with my computer, cell phone, tv , car you name it and the person on the other end of the phone has no patience ( or none left for me) that they frustrate me even more then my technical problem did. So GEEKS of all kinds please be patiient with us all !!

  35. I definately agree with the whole “patience in vital” I find when I am trying to get help from someone who is more computer savvy then I am I usually will ask the same question over and over till I understand what exactly that peson is saying to me. I personally have had to deal with people that have not been patient with me and have hung up on them. Im also not a computer “geek” but i do know a few things about computers, and also i know where to find some things on my computer. That i feel is always helpful for the person that i am getting help from!

    I enjoyed reading this article it helped me to understand the people who are trying to help us out. In the future i will be able to have more respect for these people!

  36. I enjoyed reading Mike’s article. I am one of those who always wants IT to come quick and fix my issues. this article makes me realize I should do more on my own, and be patient when it comes to learning new things and handling problems. thanks for the great advice.

  37. i think this essay is really awesome, he also used quotes that majority of people already know or have heard and he made these quotes to relate to the poiint he intented to prove. i think this essay was written in a very good way.
    and aside from the fact that he is my distant cousin, i honestly believe this is the one of the best pieces of work i have read in a very long time,
    good job micheal i hope to see you soon :]

  38. Very imfortative and honest article. I’ve been on the end of calling upon a “tech” or “geek”. Sometimes you get those that can’t understand why “you” don’t get it. But most of the times, I’ve gotten someone like this author – and the experience most is helpful and makes me feel comfortable and I usually walk away with learning something.

  39. I really like the old saying, “give a man a fish…” Even though it often takes a tremendous amount of patience to wait for them to do what you could have done in seconds (as you’re thinking about the backlog of work waiting for you), this strategy will pay off in the long run. As the author says, if you’ll teach them how to do it themselves, most people will do just that – resulting in fewer calls to the help desk (at least in theory 🙂

  40. I agree , especially with the make your own mistakes bit. I made many errors (some of them critical) before I learned a thing. I’m still only sharp enough to be dangerous, but I’m not afraid. Good article.

  41. I think the article was very informative and an interesting read. The author used a very entertaining language while explaining things in a very clear manner. I think the article would be a helpful tool to anyone teaching some one not just about computers, but teaching in general.

  42. I like the fish example. it’s very true. i could give a hundred examples of when you made me do something…. : /
    and it’s written well… and doesn’t bore me to death.

  43. I really like his attitude about teaching; giving lots of details and not getting frustrated when having to repeat things over and over.

    I also like the idea of fishing, I know it’s much easier for me for someone to show me once then leave me to trial and error and yes I do “backup”.

    Great article.

  44. This article really helped me. I wouldn’t have though of patience as a way to help the other person. Definitely making the other person feeling encouraged helps get the job done more efficiently. And definitely having the person do the task for themselves helps them to learn it. I can talk from experience on that one.

  45. As a teacher who works with older colleagues, I find that I am often the ‘technologically savvy’ one because my of my upbringing with technology. I definitely agree with the writer of this article because it’s important to take baby steps. It’s not their faults that they weren’t raised on computers like we were 🙂 Plus, with my students, I have to keep my patience until they have the critical thinking skills to think on their own when it comes to problem solving.

  46. Finally! Someone who actually acts like they could help me. It’s a breath of fresh air to find someone who actually wants to teach others instead of just grabbing the mouse and doing it for me. Thank you, Michael!

  47. All of the topics were great..the more technology that comes out, the more difficult teaching it can be. I love technology and I sometimes get confused with what I am doing. I like this article, it was helpful and encourageing!! 🙂

  48. I think the tips were very good for someone getting into teaching anything to others. I would add a bit about how there’s a difference in info retention for those of us who don’t live on a computer 24/7. A teacher-geek probably has done certain things 100 times, whereas us novice-geeks have done it once or twice and sometimes are working against the continual loss of brain cells – you too shall be old someday! Thanks for the good read!

  49. This is very true. Micheal you should write about things like this more often. You made a very good.

  50. Well spoken. This article could be read for more than just helping someone with computers. This is how people should help anyone in any situation. This was a great article Michael. Good luck to you in the future. I look forward to many more articles.

  51. I completely agree with the section on details, I’m a little computer savvy but when I need help I enjoy being walked through as if I was new to computers. I can also relate as a teacher, when my mom needs help I basically have to explain the whole screen to her, but I dint mind because she did the same in raising me.

  52. I certainly agree with the order of your tips. As a tech support professional I’ve often been told that I have the “patience of a saint” when dealing with novice computer users—and even when working with very experienced ones. They are already frustrated or they would not be asking for help so be sure you stay positive and that you are just oozing calm.

    Details, too, are important because they need to learn the steps but remember they probably are not at your level of understanding and too many details will quickly overwhelm them. The KISS principle never fails.

  53. Excellent points made in article. Would be useful in real life. We would be well served to use these points everyday.

  54. I think that this is a very educating article. in fact its very rue since i’ve had to be one of the computer dumbnut people. so in my perspective i think that this is very true and that this is very helpfull to those who are going to teach people how to use computers.

  55. This article was very amusing. I liked how the author of the article used quotations to help explain what he was going to say. I’m one of those people that he is talking about helping. I just wish the people who help me when I’m having a problem would read this article (maybe I will reccomend it :] ). I really enjoyed the part about teaching them instead of just doing it for them. People never are willing to teach me, but rather they do things for me so I never really learn and then I have to keep asking. Michael, you do a good job of explaining how to help others and it can be used in other ways, not just tech stuff. Very refreshing : )

  56. these four steps on helping novice computer users are very helpful and if more computer technicians would know all of this it would be very helpful, im not a novice computer user but i will use these technics to help other people when and if they need help great work trimm

  57. this a very good article, I particularly like the teach them to fish part . Not only can that be used to teach people about computers but can also teach them about all other aspects of life.

  58. I appreciate your thoughts on patience. Most friends of mine who try to help me understand something move too quickly for me to grasp the concept they are showing me. I’m able to get around on my computer, but I sometimes wish I new more. It was a very well written article. Good luck.

  59. All of those things are so true!! Especially patients, in fact, everything else kind of falls under patients. At work I often find myself teaching other people to do what I do, and if i didn’t have patients, give them every little detail, or let them learn from their mistakes they would probably just get discouraged and give up.
    And as far as great power giving you great responsibility, I love that quote! If people didn’t help eachother or share eachother’s knowledge, the world wouldn’t go round!

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