Just tell me what I need to know

I’m reading various blog accounts of SXSW. Kathy Sierra talks about the face to face aspects, and how computers need to read human emotion. How the computer needs to respond to the face wrinkled in concern. Confusion. Consternation.

Oh, I know that. I so know that.

I’ve been living in a human equivalent of communication about computer skills. I’m living with my inability to explain precisely the right thing. I’ve been developing a workshop: Build A Website in 1 Day — as a way to take a small group — with laptops, sitting around a common table — through the process of setting up a WordPress site. The idea is to make a site. Not a totally tricked out custom site, nor a Web 2.0 site, but a basic web presence — in one day. And help the attendees build enough skills so that they can continue on their own.

I held a workshop Saturday. As I mull over the day, what went right, what could have gone better, that face of consternation is ever-clear before me.

The consternation was in response to TMI – too much information.

All right, all right. There’s too much detail: What do I keep? What do I throw away? Was there anything I talked about that was inessential? How can I get to the coooool factor, the aHA! Success! factor? What do I need to do to lose the suck factor, the overwhelm factor?

. . . . . .

Every time the Tech Conference topic comes up, I read comments on the inappropriateness of terms such as “making it easy enough for my Mom to use” or “…my grandma…” or some other variation on age and possibly gender. (seen here and there, most recently at Anne 2.1)

I’d like to dispense with age or gender factors and instead look at Styles or Modes of Thinking. On the one hand, there’s a kind of highly detailed systems-style thinking, and then there’s cut-to-the-chase thinking. I realized this from a conversation I had with my friend Lilli last summer. I was wrapping up a “practice” hands-on how-to session I did to prepare for BlogHer.

Lilli –who’s the master of messaging — had some pointers on how I could improve the presentation. “I’m a bottom line kind of person,” she said. “Just tell me what I need to know.” She told me that I reminded her of someone she worked with who was more into the deep knowledge for its own sake, and how frustrating it was to talk to him, because he’d give her a long answer to her question. “I asked him, ‘what’s going on with the phone system?’ and he gave me this whole long answer about how he needed to do this and this and this because of such and such and blah blah and all I wanted to know was a date that it would be up and running.”

I felt for the phone systems guy. I’m that way, too. I’m sure I’ve pissed off my (un)fair share of people who’ve all look crosseyed at me, thinking, “Susan, just answer the g**damned question!!” And I end up feeling a bit deflated by that, because, well, I should be able to get right to the answer and not go on this roundabout I just went on.

But at the same time, the way I remember Lilli telling it, she invited the overly detailed answer that she got. I said, “Lilli, that guy could answer the question ‘What’s going on’ any number of ways, from way down deep (I said, gesturing around my knee) to way up high (gesturing near my ear). That guy has to parse through all the possible ways of answering the question and make the best guess for what you want. He could use some help for which level to answer the question. Ask when it’ll be ready. Then he knows how to answer. Otherwise, he’s giving his best guess, and a correct answer to ‘what’s going on’ ranges from ‘it’ll be back up and running next week’ to a detailed dissection of the issues at hand.”

At the time, what struck me was that I could provide a bit of insight from the perspective of the person mired in the details. I don’t like that this example puts the onus on Lilli as a bottom-line person to ask a better question. That’s not my point. My point is that there are these different modes of thinking. The deeply detailed thinking, and the bottom-line thinker.

I’m writing about what my job is: to provide better answers, and to suit them for the Just Tell Me What I Need To Know person.

So I’ll posit that all those “design it for Granny” [ick] statements are coming from people who live in the mired-in-details realm– the systems thinking realm– and they’re trying to make a product for someone who lives in the Just Tell Me What I Need to Know realm. The shorthand they use is Granny. But I say it’s for someone whose life doesn’t revolve interest in the tool for its own sake. Just tell me what I need to know to make it work. Don’t confuse me with the extra bells and whistles. I got more important things to do with my time.

2 responses to “Just tell me what I need to know”

  1. Kathy Sierra

    Amen : )

    You just gave me some really useful ideas to add to my talk on this Susan… this is really helpful. Thanks!


  2. Susan A. Kitchens

    Cool! I’ve been lurking at your site for a while, and have found the pleasure-to-pain stuff and the tell a story, be emotionally engaging posts very helpful.

    But I am curious. What parts here were useful?

    By the way, all this thinking about how to make it easier reminds me of a saying Kai Krause had (I worked from him in the early days of Kai’s Power Tools Photoshop plugins). He said — about his interfaces — “it isn’t very easy to make it all so easy.” So true.