7 tips for becoming more tech-savvy

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Technology, software, social media—so much to learn and keep up with, so little time and mental energy. If you think you should probably get a handle on things, but you're sick of asking your son/daughter/grandson/granddaughter for technical support, here are 7 tips for becoming more tech-savvy—whether you want to get better at Word, figure out that darn Twitter, or just get more comfortable with your television remote control.

1. "It's not you, it's me." – your computer

The first rule to becoming more tech-savvy is to know that computers and technology are not perfect. Hardware fails. Software has bugs. Websites have glitches and are often very poorly organized. If you can't make something work, don't assume it's your fault; it might just be the technology.

2. Yes, you can. So do.

This may seem like the opposite to number 1, but it's not. Number 1 was about recognizing that things don't always work like they're supposed to; this is about believing that you have the capacity to learn, and about taking responsibility for knowing how to make things work like they're supposed to.

You wouldn't dream of getting behind the wheel of a car unless you knew how to make it stop, turn and go. You probably also know that cars need to be re-fueled and have other fluids such as oil and coolant to work—or at the very least you know that your car needs to go to the mechanic every once in a while for service.

We're surrounded by thousands of tools that we've learned to operate and use (doors, pens, books, knives and forks, washing machines, dishwashers, etc.) and we've managed to master them. Think of software or technology as something you need to know how to use, and take responsibility to do so. You will learn it if you own the need to learn it.

3. Fear not.

There is nothing—I repeat, nothing—that you could click on in software or a website that will do irrevocable damage without first asking you for confirmation. So don't be afraid to ask "What's this button do?" or "What's in this menu?" Then, before you do risk pushing that button, stop and take a breath. Take note of the following:

  • What (exactly) are about to do?
  • What do you expect to happen? (then compare this to what actually does happen)

Having this straight in your head before you click or push will help stave off the panic. How many times have you done something with a tool (e.g., the remote control), only to go: "Yikes! What the heck happened?" and get so flustered that you can't remember what you did to make it happen? Take time to make mental notes and two things will occur:

  • You'll remember what you did (so you can undo it).
  • You'll learn how to do it (or how not to do it if it didn't do what you expected).

4. Embrace your inner child. (Or nerd. Or cat.) 

A characteristic that kids, nerds, and cats all share is curiosity about how things work. Being curious about the tool (rather than fearful ... Remember: "Fear not!") will make you more likely to explore its capabilities.

5. Think laterally.

Several years ago now, software developers figured out that the more similarities to other programs they built into a new product, the faster people learned it and the more likely it was to become popular. This sort of consistency is part of a huge field called user interface design (UID).

Now, there are hundreds of similarities and consistencies across all sorts of technology that you probably don't even notice any more. For example, look at the tool bar in MS Word, Internet Explorer, Outlook, and Adobe reader. They all start with

File  Edit  View

Also, on websites, we tend to expect the search bar to be at the top, probably toward the right, and the menus to be on the left, or along the top, or both.

If you're faced with a new piece of software or new online social media tool, think laterally. Think about a tool you are familiar with and see if you can see similarities. Then create mental notes in your mind that link those similarities together.

For example, on Facebook, you "like" things. On Twitter, you can "favourite" a tweet. Facebook profiles have "friends", Facebook pages have "fans", and Twitterers have "followers."

You can also look for consistencies in iconography and symbolism. The "reply" icon or button in many Twitter tools has some similarities to the "reply" icon in Outlook, for instance.

The more you practice thinking laterally, the better you'll get at it, and the faster you will get at applying past knowledge to new tools.

6. Learn *if* it can be done. 

Knowing if the tool is capable of something is a powerful incentive to finding out how to make it do it. It's also often easier to find out if than to find out how. And, it saves time—if you know a tool can't do something, you won't waste time trying to find out how to make it do it.

The easiest way to do this is to read about a tool's features. Google "[tool name]" + "features" and have a quick scan.

7. Ask for help.

Yeah, right. You've had enough of the eye-rolling and exasperated sighs from your offspring. But don't worry; I'm not suggesting you ask for help from them.

Use the in-program help feature, or Google your question. Someone, somewhere, has had the same issue you're having with that program right now, so offer it up to the Googleverse. Google "how do I format a table in Microsoft Word" and let a nice, patient person tell you how.

If you do better with demonstrations, try asking your question in YouTube. Every minute, 24 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube, and it's not all drivel. There are a lot of helpful people out there who want to share their knowledge. Without rolling their eyes.

Here's a little more help from an online comic, xkcd:

What are your tips for becoming more tech-savvy? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.