News Streams and email trouble, Part 3

(Part 1 and Part 2 preceded this, but you don’t need to read them first.)

When my son turns sixteen or so, there are a few things that I’m going to teach him directly: how to drive, how to manage personal finances, and how to handle email and social media effectively.

I want to teach him skills such as:

  • How to choose what messages needs prompt responses, and what should be deferred until later
  • How to use available tools to organize his incoming News Stream content
  • Why and how to archive material (and when not to)
  • How to maintain an appropriate digital persona, and what might happen to it
  • Self-restraint when dealing with online entertainment and fluff content
  • To attribute positive intent in online conversations, and cultivate good relationships
  • How to recognize scams and spam

What? He’ll learn all this himself with no help? From the evidence of the grownups around me, no, I don’t think people learn it all that well by themselves. In fact, I think it might be quite hard to learn.

Besides all the issues I mentioned in Part 1, consider what basic email usage looks like to a typical non-technical person. I mean, the really basic stuff. You have to learn so many little details: per-message functions, text editors, attachments, subscribing and unsubscribing, To and CC and BCC, email addresses, contact lists, etiquette rules, error recovery, spam, sorting, searching, filtering, and the whole model of what email is and how it works. Facebook introduces another set of models for message handling, privacy, and social interactions. Twitter, forums, blogs — yet more. And for more fun, they’re interconnected!

Just learning how to use two or three of these personal News Streams is a real hurdle for many non-technical people. And we expect them to figure out, on their own, the subtleties of using them effectively? That’s crazy. I’ve seen plenty of very smart, technically adept people tie themselves in knots as they try to cut back on email time and effort. I sure don’t expect a 16-year-old with still-developing executive functions to just “get it.”

So let’s teach it! Effective News Stream management is a life skill that benefits many people as much as driving does. Email and social media help people do their jobs. They help support their personal lives. Misused, they can cause terrible misery, by way of bullying, interpersonal misunderstandings, and privacy violations. And though getting through our daily pile of email and social media is often a chore, it can also be a source of profound enjoyment and personal connection.

We designers should be thinking in those terms. Not necessarily “design for the lowest common denominator,” because that implies a kind of value judgement on the users of our products. Try this instead: “design to help people feel competent, and to become even more competent.”

Maybe that means recognizing that some things are fundamentally hard, and that we should organize the larger social and learning systems around them accordingly. So be it.

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