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Tech Savvy

Are today’s people really more tech-savvy? Or is it the other way round?

Smartphones now outnumber computers, in terms of customer usage. Not everyone needs a laptop to work, but everyone needs a smartphone to check their messages and videos when they get back home.

But it’s not just a question of phones versus laptops. There are many more people using digital devices, when in the olden days, they didn’t use them at all.

What’s more, people these days just ‘know’ how to use their devices. Earlier, every simple black-and-white cellphone would come with an instruction manual, telling you that you can “press the green button to answer a call” or “select ‘send’ to send a message”. Nowadays, even the latest and greatest smartphones with loads of apps and features come accompanied by nothing much more than a warranty-card.

Does that mean people are getting more tech-savvy? It certainly feels like it.

I was reading an article about computer-games, and how they don’t come with instructions any more. Nobody tells you how to play the game; you just have to figure it out for yourself.

Of course, it works both ways. There’s no point writing instructions anyway, because hardly anyone will bother to read them.

So, it seems, there goes the end of videogame manuals. But new games are just as complex — if not more — than their predecessors. So how do people figure out how to play, if they couldn’t earlier?

It’s all about how the games are designed. Instead of having a manual, the trend these days is to have info-boxes pop up during the game, as and when they’re required. And remember what I said about no more tutorials? That may not be quite true.

You know those suspiciously easy ‘Level One’s that many games have? What do you think those are?

It’s not just games that have info-boxes popping up. Apps do it, too.

In app design, the concept of onboarding experience is very important. It’s the experience new users get when they’ve just installed an app.

Different apps do it differently, of course. Some have a mini slideshow telling you what all you can do. Some require you to log in or create an account, while others simply send a one-time SMS code to your phone. Some have tiny popups pointing out the main features to tap on. And some simply drop you right in, without telling you anything at all.

The point of onboarding is to get users started on the app — and a lot of effort goes into it, because this is the one place where first impressions really count. The text in messages are short and simple, because people don’t like to waste time reading. Sometimes, there can be a “Learn More” button for those wanting to dig deeper. Mostly, however, it’s just short-and-sweet info-boxes that do the job.

Info-boxes aren’t limited to onboarding. They also come up when a new feature is added, or when you’re trying an old feature for the first time. In fact, you could say they’re a kind of manual that’s built right into the app, popping up at just the right time when they’re needed.

Computers are nothing but overgrown calculators. Of course, they’ve overgrown quite a bit: today’s calculator is to a computer what an amoeba is to an octopus.

Early computers needed people to enter commands via punch-cards, same as for player-pianos and weaving-looms. Then, they got more advanced: you could type commands directly in using a keyboard.

Don’t think typing commands is like talking to Alexa or Google: the command-words are very specific, and you have to know exactly how to phrase them. Instead of “Siri, email Snipette”, it was more like mail -s "Hello" < /dev/null .

It was tech visionary and inventor Douglas Engelbart who thought up a more user-friendly interface — one that would let more people use computers easily. It was a device you could move, which made a pointer on the screen move along with it. Then, you could press on a button to select whatever the pointer was moving over.

The device was nicknamed the ‘turtle’, because it looked like one. Then, someone noticed the long tail-like wire, and the device soon had a more popular name: the ‘mouse’.

But what’s the use of a ‘mouse’ if there’s no computer to go with it? The first mouse-compatible computer was the Xerox Alto. However, it was Apple which designed a proper graphical desktop to go with the mouse: instead of white text on a black console, you had a desktop with icons and buttons and you could actually go around clicking on stuff.

Xerox didn’t do much to cash in on their early lead. They were too busy making better photocopying machines.

Have you opened the Blender animation program? It looks like a space-ship’s control panel. So does Adobe Photoshop. And Microsoft Word. And, indeed, many high-end professional products, or old ones designed long ago.

Desktop programs, at least in the past, were designed for features. They could do everything you wanted and more, and every option was exposed, out there, for you to see.

But that meant programs took time to get used to. Some people rarely used computers at all, because they were so overwhelmed by all the options. Or, they would learn just the bare minimum to get by, and ignore everything else.

Smartphone and tablet apps have a different design pattern — one that’s being repeated in desktops too. They don’t throw the whole kitchen sink at you: only the bare minimum options that everyone will need are visible. The other options are neatly hidden away to pop up at the right time, or never at all.

That doesn’t mean smartphone apps are any less powerful than desktop ones: they just don’t show you the power. Who would guess, clicking on an Instagram filter, that it’s actually running a pixel-by-pixel independent RGB colour transformation, overlaying background PNG image, and finishing with a lightly-applied Selective Gaussian Blur?

“Nobody wants your product” is the new philosophy. People don’t want your app, they just want what it does for them. So an app’s job is to guess what a user wants, and do it with as little input as possible.

‘Digital natives’ is the term for people born into a gadget-filled world. They intuitively know how to probe and investigate devices; give them a new phone and they’ll immediately tell you how to use its features.

But is that really about tech-savviness? Maybe it’s just a matter of confidence.

The older generation is still used to computers as obstacle-filled spaceship-dashboards, so even with smartphones they’re still afraid of “clicking the wrong button”. Some of the older generation, that is. My grandfather is very comfortable with the iPad, and he’s definitely not a “digital native”.

Today’s apps are designed with beginners in mind: they’re designed for people who don’t know how computers work. And that means, their interfaces are made as simple and intuitive as possible.

Of course, simple apps do have their downsides. Their workings are hidden under shiny interfaces, people may not realise how powerful they really are. They can’t look under the hood and figure out how an app is put together, how exactly it works.

But not everyone wants to do that. And when it comes to using an app, do you really need any special skills? Perhaps it’s just a matter of realising that touchscreens aren’t the complex beasts computers used to be.

Put an average person from the ’90s in front of a white-on-black text console, and they wouldn’t know what to do. Put an average 21st-century netizen there, and they’ll probably be in the same situation.

So have people become more tech-savvy today? We can’t quite answer ‘yes’ to that question. Luckily, it doesn’t matter, for there is one thing that’s certain.

Tech has become more people savvy.

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Sources and references for this article can be found here.



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Badri Sunderarajan

Badri Sunderarajan

Books reader, Websites coder, Drawings maker. Things writer. Occasional astronomer. Alleged economist. Editor@Snipette.