Technology choices and digital skills

Some advice for users and designers

One of the downsides of hosting your own blogs, wikis, etc. is that they’re more likely to occasionally be down than platforms such as Medium. As I write this, all of my sites are inaccessible. But I have patience.

In my experience, people aren’t very understanding when it comes to downtime. It’s all about instant gratification, as Louis CK hilariously points out:

Recently, I’ve come to a few decisions recently about prioritising other things over things being shiny and convenient. Instead of a MacBook Pro, I’m using a ThinkPad X220 running elementaryOS (i.e. Linux). Instead of an iPhone, I’ve got a Sony Z3 Compact running CyanogenMod. Why? I want to be as in control of my digital information environment as possible.

I’m well aware that, for most people, what I’m choosing to do isn’t an option. They’re constrained by the technology given to them by their employer, their lack of digital skills, or both. I think the former is a legitimate barrier, whereas the latter obviously isn’t.

What designers can do

The trouble is that while its great that technology is becoming progressively easier to use, it’s at the expense of people having the level of knowledge to be able to make informed choices. Sometimes decisions made by designers, manufacturers, and software engineers make for short-term gains and long-term losses in users’ digital skills.

Those making design decisions need to think carefully about educating the user. It’s fine to have safe defaults that work well, but users should also be given a (guided) look behind the wizard’s curtain now and again. It’s easy to assume that the knowledge you’ve built up for yourself is widespread.

Mozilla, my former employers, usually do a good job with this. They provide default options that respect users’ privacy, but then show them both why that’s important and why their approach is different to other organisations. The new (even more) private browsing experience launched in November 2015 is an example of this.

What users can do

A quotation I’ve used repeatedly over the past 18 months or so comes from an interview Clay Shirky gave about his technology setup.

I actually don’t want a “dream setup.” I know people who get everything in their work environment just so, but current optimization is long-term anachronism. I’m in the business of weak signal detection, so at the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.

This is a good approach to take, to always be learning. If you’re entirely comfortable in your digital habits, then it probably means one of two things. Either someone else is making all of the decisions for you (i.e. you’re literally sticking to the defaults) and/or you’re not learning anything new.

There is no one, objective, for-all-time threshold for digital skills. There’s no level where you can sit back and say that you’re done learning new stuff. There’s a common core of digital skills, but a lot of them depend on what you do for a living, what you’re interested in, and — let’s be honest — your personality.

It’s OK to just not be that interested in the digital world. What’s unforgivable, I think, like most areas in life, is to settle into an increasingly-anachronistic routine.

Shirky again:

Some of those changes stick, most don’t, but since every tool switch involves a period of disorientation and sub-optimal use, I have to make myself be willing to bang around with things I don’t understand until I do understand them.

Some of this is about mindset. I’m guessing most people have come across Carol Dweck’s work around developing a growth mindset. I see tinkering with technology as a perfect example of this.

Conclusion

If you’re reading this, try to make 2016 the year when you intentionally remove your comfort blanket. Mess about with stuff.

I’m going to try and monitor the microclimate around the allotment we’ve just inherited using a Raspberry Pi Zero. I have literally no idea how to do this right now. For others it might be having a website you’re fully in control of for the first time. Some might simply find a backup tool to the one they always use for a particular purpose — e.g. a WebRTC-powered service like appear.in in case Skype isn’t working.

Whatever it is, move out of your comfort zone! It’s the only way to find, develop, and hone digital skills. And once you’ve done that, encourage someone else do to likewise.

Good luck!