"I Thought This Computer Was
Supposed to Be Easy to Use!"


Here's your chance to release all of the Mac-guilt that you feel. We all know that the Macintosh is significantly easier to operate than Windows. Numerous tests reach this conclusion. The magazines repeat this fact (even the Windows magazines admit it). Our friends who have had to work on both platforms know it better than anyone and constantly and enthusiastically report this observation. Yet, you feel guilty because you have a question about the Mac that you haven't been able to figure out.If you get frustrated enough, you may even begin to wonder if all of this "ease of use" talk is just a marketing gimmick designed to convince you to buy a Mac.

I'll begin by assuring you that it isn't hype; the Mac is the easiest to use. Although many people have a favorite story, my illustration involves my brother-in-law, a man who had graduated High School ten years ago and had been a mechanic ever since. In other words: this is an extremely typical user, not a rocket scientist. He knew how to turn on the machine, how to play games, and how to open a word processing document. I came home one evening to discover that he had needed to scan in a document for a group of people and edit it. On his own, he had opened the scanning software, scanned the document, converted it to text, exported it in the file format used by the word processor, and edited the document. The typical Windows user would still be searching the hard disk to find a scanning application (not knowing that, tragically, the endeavor is doomed to fail because the INI file has never been updated to recognize this particular brand of scanner and that the switches on the scanner itself are set up for the wrong brand of clone).

But let's go back to your problem or question. There are endless questions which will be encountered while using a Mac, and this month's article will examine various avenues for guidance. We'll take a look at some of the resources available, what to expect from them, and what type of help each is particularly adept at providing.

Figure 1

The simplest source for help is on-line, in the program itself. One of the special features in the Macintosh Operating System is called AppleGuide. From the Question Mark menu (see figure one), many programs now offer a command to open AppleGuide. The AppleGuide database contains several frequently asked questions. Whenever you select one, AppleGuide leads you, step-by-step, through the steps to accomplish whatever task you're asking about. This feature has been part of the Macintosh OS for so many years, that I've gotten to where I resent having to buy a program that doesn't support it! AppleGuide help is particularly good at leading you through very specific tasks.

The second source for help can be stored your bookshelf. Your computer and its programs came with manuals which describe how it works. Since many people hate to read reference manuals (and since many manuals are less than spectacular), the computer section at your favorite bookstore also contains books about most of the major programs and the Macintosh. These manuals and books are also good at leading you through very specific tasks. The additional value that they offer is the space to explain issues with more details. The disadvantage is that books are not interactive; they may be confusing, and they may not cover what you want to know. It's easy to keep buying more books, hoping and expecting that the next one will boost your proficiency.

The third source for help comes from a variety of classes. Classes on the Macintosh are useful, because they provide interactive instruction. This means that the instructor can answer your specific questions and make sure that you understand. The class content and pace can often be adjusted, too, to fit the students' needs.

Training classes can be found at computer stores (such as Computer City), schools (check out Leisure Learning and Houston Community College), consultants, and dedicated computer trainers (such as MacAcademy). If there's a class which covers what you want to learn, then this is often the fastest and most cost-effective way to rapidly gain proficiency. The disadvantage is that there may not be a class which suits your unique needs, and even if there is one, it may not be offered at a convenient location or time for you. Another thing to be careful of: try to discover the typical class size before attending. A student of mine was describing a class which he attended on some type of color (device) management. He was in a room with about eighty other students. The class was mostly a presentation; there was no opportunity for the students to try out what they were being taught. He asked a question about the one thing he had most hoped to learn from the class, but the instructor didn't really answer it and didn't have the latitude, due to the class size, to explore the issue adequately.

My fourth suggestion for help qualifies as the, overall, most valuable and cheapest source of help: your local user group. The idea of user groups is simple; a group of people who are interested in computers get together and share what they've learned. In Houston, the Houston Area Apple User Group (HAAUG) meets at the University of Houston, usually on the third Saturday of each month. User groups provide a network of experts about the Mac and its software, and members are eager to share what they've learned. Of course, if you need help badly, you probably won't be able to wait until the next meeting. Fortunately, User Groups often have an electronic bulletin board that you can call. I see most questions typically answered in less than a day or two, sometimes within hours. Another advantage of the bulletin board is that it contains software that you can copy and use: utilities, games artwork, fonts, and all kinds of other items. The only limit to a user group's help is that the group only has hundreds of people to help you; if you have a particularly difficult question, none of them may be able to help you (or have enough time to help you completely). If you decide that you want to check out HAAUG, you can call their voicemail hotline at 713-522-2179

If we were to imagine a User Group on steroids, we might describe it as a collection of thousands and thousands of experts ready to give help. We might also call it the Internet. Believe me, I could fill an entire magazine with advice on how to find information on the Internet (in fact, there are monthly magazines dedicated to doing just that). I will say that if you aren't utilizing the Internet yet, you're neglecting the widest and richest source of help available! You can read and post questions to public newsgroups to obtain help. It seems that almost every program has a private newsgroup that you can subscribe to, and all of the posts about that topic are delivered straight to your Email account. You can use "search engines" to find websites which contain key words. These are often run by experts to whom you can Email brief questions. There can be a few minor disadvantages to looking for help on the 'net: the cost, sifting through the junk, finding the right expert with enough time to help, and the temptation to keep surfing to some other sites, just to see what other cool things are out there.

The final source of help can come from consultants. The obvious disadvantage is that they charge the most. The advantage is that they will be very focused upon you and your needs and will be ready to help you when you need it.

We all know that the Macintosh is the premier computer in terms of ease of use. However, everyone from the newest users to the most experienced super-users will eventually discover the need for reliable help. Through the suppliers of information whom I've listed, I can always find solutions and explanations for my Macintosh dilemmas.

Chuck Hinkle has been programming microcomputers since 1977. He is the owner of CLH WAREs, a computer consulting firm that specializes in database analysis and development for the Macintosh and for Windows. You can Email Chuck with your comments or questions at chuckh@iapc.net or visit his website at http://web-hou.iapc.net/~chuckh/.