Sent to you by Chris Hunter via Google Reader:
My parents don't know much about computers. They're barely able to operate their DVR. I'm always the one they call for help. While I don't mind helping some of the time, I think it would be better if they learned a few skills of their own. How can I bring my parents into the technical age without frying their brains?
Child of the Technically Challenged
First off, it's great that you want to help your parents learn to help themselves, rather than do the work for them. That's often a harder route, but definitely a good one.
Set Your Expectations Correctly
Your parents are never going to be you. You've probably figured that one out by now, but when you're making suggestions or helping them through a problem, it's easy to forget. You may love your custom XBMC home theater PC, but that's probably a bit much for your mom or dad. You may know what "make a new Finder window" or "open Windows Explorer" means, but they probably don't. Not only is it important to take a step back, but also know that they're probably never going to catch up with you. Although you may love technology, it's not as important to them and it's not going to be. So be sure you remember who you're dealing with. If they ask you for a recommendation for any kind of gadget, be sure to consider what works best for them rather than you. If they need help with a computer problem, help them with detailed steps. Talk it out like you're seeing it for the first time. You can't expect them to know all terms you've picked up over the years, even if they seem incredibly simple. You probably know this already, but when their tech needs arise it is important to remember. If you're very clear, and you explain things thoroughly, there's a better chance they'll pick it up and remember it next time around. That's better for both of you.
Make a Tutorial for Every Technical Issue
Whenever your parents have a technical issue, make a tutorial. You could even make a wiki or start a YouTube channel so they can easily refer back to every one you make—text, video, or otherwise. Video is generally your best bet, as most people will have an easier time learning visually, and it can actually be a lot easier for you to make. If you already have a great screencasting tool, chances are it uploads to YouTube or some other video sharing site. If not, you can always use Screencast-O-Matic or Jing for free.
Making a Screencast
When creating the screencast, it's best to plan it out a little bit in advance. This doesn't mean you need to spend a ton of time on it, but just take a minute to think about the steps you're going to cover in advance so your instructions are clear and succinct. For an example, just watch the video on your left. It's about a minute long, covers a simple task, and highlights important details that are easy to overlook because they're second-nature to tech-savvy people like yourself. It may seem redundant to mention what things look like when the they can be seen on screen, but doing so gives them prominence and provides additional clarity to your instructions.
Providing Written Instructions
Not every task is suited for video. You also may not be in a place where you can make a good video, or your parents are the type who prefer to read. Whatever the case may be, if you're writing out your instructions it is best to provide them in short steps. Here's what you want to avoid:
- Go to the Finder and look for System Preferences. When you find it, open it up.
- Inside of System Preferences you should locate the Users & Groups icon. Click on that and it will load that panel. When it loads, click on Login Items.
- On the Login items page, delete the application you want to get rid of.
Those instructions are bad because they do a few things wrong. For starters, they're not specific enough for a novice to understand. Several important details are missed. Also, the second step combines two steps. Here are what the instructions should look like:
- Open System Preferences. You can find it in the Apple menu at the top left of your screen. Select "System Preferences" from the Apple menu to open it up.
- When the primary window for System Preferences opens, you'll see many icons. In the fourth row from the top, the first option will be Users & Groups. Its icon is a silhouette of a man. Click on it to load these settings.
- When it loads, your name will probably be selected by default. If not, click on your name.
- To the right of your name, you'll see two options: "Password" and "Login Items." Click on Login Items.
- Underneath Login Items you'll see a list of applications. Choose the application you want to delete by clicking on it. You can then press the delete key or click the subtraction sign below the list to remove it.
- When you're finished removing items, you can close System Preferences by clicking the red dot in the top left corner of the window.
These instructions are good for novices because they describe the tasks visually and do not skip simple but important information. Regardless of how you provide your instructions, these are important things to keep in mind. These are just general tips, however, and you know your parents better than most. Consider their personal technical shortcomings and the sort of things they tend to miss when you're providing your instructions. While it might be a slow road ahead, teaching them instead of doing the job for them will take the burden of tech support off your back and make their lives easier, too. Good luck!
Have a question or suggestion for a future Ask Lifehacker? Send it to email@example.com.
Photo by ra2 studio (Shutterstock).