Self-Help for the Computer-Challenged

Recently a new home improvement store opened up and I needed to go there to purchase wood for our new monastery. Now being tax exempt, I always have to find out where to go and what to do about it when buying something at a new store. One of the clerks told me to go to customer service. It just so happened that another man was there setting up his tax exemption with them, also. The clerk who helped me seemed to know what she was doing as she asked me questions, which then she typed into the computer. However, the software she was using wasn’t happy about something and I stood at the counter for some time while she and another clerk tried to figure it out. They finally did figure it out. The other man with tax exemption was there before me and still there after I left. Apparently his clerk couldn’t figure it out. Now I was told I could go to any cashier with my purchase and just give her my tax-exempt number. I was now "in the system" so it should be now problem. Guess again. The middle-aged cashier didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. The manager she called over for help didn’t know what to do. Finally, the clerk who helped me set it up at customer service came over. She pulled out a little "cheat sheet." And then went through a litany of steps, push F11, select this, select that, enter this, etc. When she was all done the cashier told her she went to fast for her to learn the steps. The customer service clerk only responded, "Well, you’re just going to have to get used to it!"

Now I felt bad for the cashier as very little of the steps for the store software struck me as being intuitive. And the cashier didn’t have the little "cheat sheet" in front of her. Unless the cashier either took shorthand or had a photographic memory, she couldn’t possibly remember all those steps given so rapidly. Function key dependent software usually was written in the 1990’s so I guessed this store hadn’t bothered to upgrade it to a user-friendlier interface. A competing home improvement store has touch screen hierarchical menus for their clerks. However, even there one is dependent on the thinking of the software programmer in laying out the menus. A clerk still may not know what to look under to process a tax-exempt purchase.

I met another middle-aged woman in the public library who was looking for an instructional video on how to use the Windows operating system. I pointed out one I saw on the shelf and she said she had tried that but it was too confusing. I then pointed out to her that under the Start menu on her computer is the word "Help." Clicking there she would find a tutorial, perhaps even with video, of how to do various tasks on her computer. Also, I told her many software programs come with help menus. Guys, I have found, would rather take two hours clicking around the software menus than use the "help" menu. (I guess its like stopping to ask for driving directions.)

The above situations made me think of how difficult and frustrating it can be for people at work or at home to figure out how to make sense of new software programs. I am one of the few people who actually will read a software manual more or less from cover to cover. I usually marvel to myself wondering how anyone without a technical background like myself could make any sense out of these manuals. The "Help" menu on software depends on you entering the correct word or words to describe what you want to know how to do. It gets frustrating at times when the matches to your question just don’t match. Most of us use a very small percentage of the features of a software program on our computer on a regular basis. So we are bound to need "help" at some point or other when we need to do something we haven’t done before.

Websites can be just as confusing as software manuals when you want to find something. I was told once that people only go down two levels on a site menu before giving up on what they are looking for. I find myself using the "search this site" more often than not to find something rather than the website menus.

Charles Woodson in the educational psychology department at the University of California did two experiments examining the utility of restructured help information as an aid to new users of computer software. In both experiments, the help information was reorganized to reflect the conceptual model or mental organization inferred from users response to questions, rather than the dictionary-like organization favored by programmers. A retention test showed higher scores on questions about the program, and student ratings indicated a higher opinion of the instruction they received and greater self-confidence in their knowledge. Woodson concluded from these experiments that the difficulties new users have with most computer manuals is the lack of correspondence between the user's schemata or mental model of the task, and the programmers conceptualization of the task upon which the manual is usually based. This study shows that software programmers and website designers may not be the best people to decide the organization or layout of instructional manuals or websites. That is why ordinary users find these things so daunting. The FAQ’s are probably more realistic in helping people precisely because they are based on user problems.

So if you feel frustrated by software manuals and finding things on websites know that it may not be only you who has this problem. It is precisely because people like you weren’t consulted that the manuals and websites are so confusing!

Annulments are not very well understood by some Catholics so let’s look at sites related to this topic.

James Akin has an FAQ page on annulments some of which I have frequently heard on the Catholic Information Network at

If you are looking for more FAQ’s on annulments see John T. Catoir, J.C.D.’s article entitled, "Understanding Annulments: Can you earn them, buy them, block them? Many well-meaning Catholics puzzle over the process of annulment. Here are some answers" at You can also read "Ten Questions About Annulments" by Joseph M. Champlin at

To see FAQ’s from a marriage tribunal go to Diocese of Rochester Tribunal webpage at

See the General and Specific impediments to Sacramental Marriage in the Church’s Canon Law on the Vatican site at

To find your local Diocesan Marriage Tribunal go to your Diocesan website, which you can find on the USCCB website at

 Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of