Why I Hate Tips and Tricks in Software Instruction

I’m about to play the hypocrite a little here.

A vast majority of my blog posts here on Figart Consulting are little nuggets of information about software. Why? Because it’s easy. I can write a 500-1000-word piece on some little bit of productivity software knowledge that might be useful to you. It might save you a half an hour when you’re trying to accomplish something.

And it’s still not really as useful as it could be.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s why I hate these little classes in software applications. You know the ones, “How to manage your Inbox” or “How to Make Pivot Tables in Excel.” I’ve taught classes like that. Shoot, I’ve written classes like that. I don’t like them.*

Why are they taught? For the same reason I write the articles. They’re easy – both for the teacher and the student.

What Tips ‘n Tricks Are Good For

It’s not that these little classes are unilaterally useless. They’re not. It’s that they’re truly only worthwhile to a peculiar subset of the population. The Gee, I Didn’t Know That! Nifty Tip is really only good for someone who knows the software in the first place. When I say “knows,” I do not mean someone who can look at the interface and puzzle it out. I don’t even mean someone who can make the software do a single task or figure out something.

When I say “knows,” I am speaking of someone who understands the underlying logic behind the software, and how its features might integrate to perform multiple complex tasks. The reality? Most people don’t know the software they use very well. (And if you argue that you shouldn’t have to understand its underlying logic to use it, I have to ask is your task truly complex enough to require software?)

If you do understand the software you’re using, yeah, those little tips and tricks will be quite useful. It’ll save you some time and you’ll be able to apply them in a useful way.

Where Tips ‘n Tricks Fall Down

I’ve taught a lot of classes in Excel. The class I want desperately to teach, and have never had the opportunity to do so, is the How to Design a Spreadsheet class. There are reasons for this. Not only is course development expensive, this is not conducive to the one-day training most employers prefer. For it to work well, I’d have to teach it more like a college class – several days over a course of many weeks – including homework and a project.

This comes from an hour on the phone doing tech support that was really turning into a development class when a user inherits a workbook that no longer works properly because changes need to be made in how data is tracked.

This comes from helping someone update a presentation using the tools available in PowerPoint, only to find that they do not know how to structure an effective talk.

This comes from re-formatting articles that cross my desk for editing purposes because the user doesn’t understand format and text flow in a document.

None of these problems can be fixed by Tips ‘n Tricks, but by understanding what the software is supposed to accomplish and understanding what task you’re trying to accomplish. Too much of what we do with computers really does have a flavor of, “Don’t bend that wrench, get a bigger hammer!”

Don’t get me wrong. I know why we don’t do it. Learning the principles behind anything is hard.

We Need to Teach Principles Based Productivity

Even though principles-based learning is hard at first, we need to teach it. The sad reality is that most people are taught to be able to do well on standardized tests. In the real world, though, you do not have standard problems to solve. I don’t care what your job happens to be, if it’s complex enough to sit down in front of a computer to it (and that includes being a cashier), you need to be able to analyze what you see in front of you, and plan not only a solution, but a way to avoid the problem in the future.

This means teaching people to sketch out what they want on a whiteboard before they sit down to create a spreadsheet. This means making an outline before starting a document. This means brainstorming a talk, maybe even writing an outline, before creating presentation slides.

To the computer professional, the expression, “Never skip the design phase” might be common. The thing is, that skill is necessary for more than just the programmers. You need to know where you are going. You need to know what you want to accomplish. You need to know what your tools can do. Without that, tips-n-tricks are pretty useless.

* This is not a secret to anyone who has asked me to write such a class, by the way. They’ve gotten this earful more than once.