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ATPM 12.01
January 2006


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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Curing That Newbie Feeling

It’s that time of year again. By the time you read this, millions of people will have made, and perhaps broken, at least one of their New Year’s resolutions. I gave up making those things long ago, but this year will be different. Recent events have caused me to make two Mac-related resolutions. Both of them involve that horrible feeling you get when, in the middle of a project, you realize something isn’t working. Or worse, you have no idea why it isn’t working or where to start making it work. This is all too often a common experience for new computer users. You may see it referred to as being a “newbie.”

I haven’t had that feeling on a Mac in a long time. Even my first Mac was an easy transition because I had been using an Apple IIGS that had an interface and system structure similar to Macs. But I had that feeling a few weeks ago, and I must admit I really didn’t like it. I’ve had problems with Macs before, but I usually have a clue where to go or why something isn’t working. This time I was clueless.

You may be wondering what project could cause such grief. I was attempting to install some Unix-based geekery that might allow me to read files from my Tivo. I’ve been using my Tivo to transfer some home movies to DVD and edit them later on a Mac. I can see the Tivo on my network, but most of the tools to read these files are Unix-based. Ever try to install some of that stuff if you aren’t a Unix geek? Not a lot of fun.

After that little experiment and the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, I started thinking about what could be done to assist new users. To that end, I have some thoughts on how the Mac community—new and seasoned users—can help each other out when that horrible feeling occurs.

The Right Attitude

What I am about to suggest is difficult—I certainly didn’t practice it two weeks ago in the middle of the Tivo project—but try to keep a positive attitude. This feeling usually occurs when you are learning something new or extending what you already know. It will pass sooner than you think. Besides, aren’t scientists always telling us that learning new things and keeping mentally active are very important? Someone’s just looking out for your well-being by making the task a little more difficult than you expected (LOL).

One thing that may help is to realize that you are not alone. Not only do other new users experience this feeling, but it happens to experienced users as well. After my Unix experiment went awry, I asked several members of the ATPM staff what they were doing the last time they experienced this feeling. Each of the staffers who answered the question had a different task that he found disconcerting. Sometimes it wasn’t a new task, just something that was proving difficult.

Getting the Right Information

Now that you have the right attitude, it’s time to go in search of the right information. Missing one or two key pieces of information can make a task difficult if not impossible. So how do you go about getting the right information? Well, just like in your school days, you’ve got to find the right people and ask the right questions. I grind my teeth as I say this, but a good place to start is by reading the manual. I am not normally a big manual person, but sometimes the answer really is there. Several times over the last few years I have had the experience of finding a shortcut or tip I hadn’t tried before.

This doesn’t exempt the computer industry from writing manuals that are comprehensible and not filled with unnecessary jargon. As a service to the Mac community, let manufacturers and publishers know when they have produced a bad manual. In my early days of Mac use, I bought two different books on Microsoft Office to figure out how to print address labels. In some ways, this process has become worse, since many programs forgo paper manuals in favor of electronic ones that are often difficult to browse.

If you can’t find the right information in the manual, ask a fellow Mac user. If you don’t personally know another Mac user, look for a Mac user group. Most user groups have knowledgeable members that are more than willing to help.

Since I started writing for ATPM, I have started exploring tasks that are more difficult than basic word processing. When I get stuck on a problem, I check out the user forums at MacMentor or Mac Owners Support Group. Both sites are great places for new and experienced users. I think these sites are particularly good for new users because the members go out of their way to welcome new and returning Mac users. You will have to register in order to post questions to the forums on these sites, but registration is free. When time permits, I pop in several times a day to see what’s happening. Sometimes I know the answer to a question, but more often than not I find useful information or a use for Macs that hadn’t occurred to me.

The forums at MacMentor and Mac Owners Support Group each have distinct personalities. But they aren’t the only places I go for helpful information. You might also want to visit OS X FAQ or the Mac OS X Hints forum page, which both focus mainly on OS X–related issues. As a last resort, I check out the MacFixIt forum page. The fact that this site is my last resort is not an indication of its quality. I simply don’t have time to go to every site every day.

By now you may be wondering why I haven’t talked about the Apple Support Site or the Apple Discussion Board This is purely a matter of preference. I seem to have a much more difficult time finding the information that I need quickly on these sites than I do on other sites. This is also the reason that I try not to just search the Web for information without going to the other sites first. I get buried in more information than I have time to slog through.

What Questions to Ask

OK, by a show of hands, how many of you remember a time when you were so confused that you didn’t even know what questions to ask? It happens to the best of us from time to time but will happen less often as you get more experience. When it happens to you, describe the problem as best you can. The forum denizens at the sites I mentioned are pretty good at interpreting computer-related gibberish. If the answer you get doesn’t make sense, keep asking. Ask the question in a different way or to a different group of people.

Most of the forums are filled with people who share my attitude that there are only two kinds of questions: those that have been asked and those that haven’t been asked but need to be. The only caveat is that it is considered good forum etiquette to search and see if the question has already been answered. If you have a question, chances are someone else has the same or a similar one.

Final Thoughts

I mentioned earlier that I had two Mac-related resolutions during the coming year. My first is to assist Mac users who are experiencing that “I’m so lost” feeling. My second is to experience that feeling more often myself. If I do that it means I will be learning new things. As a first step in that direction, next month’s project will involve some simple directions for making a photo slide show. So save those holiday pictures.

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Reader Comments (7)

David Kilpatrick · January 3, 2006 - 01:17 EST #1
I found this article very helpful. One of the most difficult problems for newbies is intimidation. No one likes to feel stupid and if the helper uses terminology that is incomprehensible, it can be discouraging to have to ask for definitions. Your comments about attitude and your admonition to keep asking, once you have searched FAQ's and some of the resources you give, is very heartening for a newbie.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · January 3, 2006 - 22:05 EST #2
Thanks for the positive feedback David. During the coming year I hope to do more articles geared toward new users or long-time Mac users trying a new task for the first time.
Andrew Parkhouse · January 6, 2006 - 03:12 EST #3
I too found this article helpful and informative. Having purchased my first Mac only two weeks ago (iMac G5 20"), after spending the past eighteen years using solely MS-DOS and Windows machines, it has been an interesting experience.

What does surprise me, and this article reminded me, is where Sylvester says to 'Read The Manual', well I don't know about previous Apple computers, but I have to say that the so called 'manuals' supplied with my iMac G5 were abysmal, and in effect were only a few pages long. It only told you how to connect the computer to the power supply and switch it on, connect mouse and keyboards etc, and that was about it.

I was very surprised as I would have thought that Apple would have included something more substantial to enlighten those of us who have moved across from windows, which is a market they are hoping to entice. So I ended up spending about £40 Uk pounds to purchase a couple of good books that explained the-ins and outs of the OS X Tiger OS.

I also used the Apple discussion rooms, but as Sylvester says, it can be hard to track down the information you are seeking. So I will definitely be seeking out some of the forums and sites mentioned here.

Other than that, the iMac G5 itself is excellent.
anonymous · January 6, 2006 - 20:04 EST #4
I share your pain Andrew. Maybe I wouldn't go as far as abysmal but the current Apple manual system is much differennt from those i got with my first Mac (LCII). I think the manuals weighed more than the computer. We seem to be in a curious time where the system manuals are skimpier than I would like but the manuals for Apple programs are usually at least decent.
Andrew Wong · January 23, 2006 - 04:36 EST #5
Apple does provide quite a comprehensive electronic help manual in the system. All you need to do is choose Help in the Finder menu. The topics covered are very wide ranging that teach you everything from the basics to sharing and collaborating with others. Do check it out. I am sure that you will agree with me, Apple does try it's best to make it easy for new users.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · January 23, 2006 - 19:05 EST #6
Andrew, you are right about Apple having a comprehensive electronic help system. It works much better than the initial attempts at electronic manuals did. There are lots of nice things about electronic help systems but I do find that there are times when having a paper manual would be helpful. Then again, that could just be the way my brain works.
Joe Edwards · February 14, 2006 - 13:09 EST #7
As a new Mac user, but a very experienced computer user (I started with a TRS-80 and then graduated to CP/M before Bill Gates was born) I find adjusting to MAC OS X frustrating because I am not really ready to unlearn all my old habits. I have favorite ways of doing things - eg I use ACT! for an awful lot of my work - and let it load WP/ email / fax /web browser - and I haven't as yet found a similar way of working in OS X.

So I will take your advice and visit MacMentor and MOSG

Thanks for a very helpful article.

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