Recently a new home-improvement store opened up nearby. I needed to go there to purchase wood for our new monastery.

Now, since our ministry is tax-exempt, we always have to find out how to proceed when buying something at a new store. In this case it was pretty clear-cut. One of the clerks told me to go to customer service.

When I got there, I found another man setting up a tax-exempt account. His clerk seemed to be having trouble figuring out what to do.

Meanwhile, the clerk who helped me seemed to know what she was doing. She asked me questions and typed my responses into her computer. But she hit a snag, too, when the software she was using seemed to go buggy. I stood at the counter for some time while she and another clerk tried to figure it out.

They finally did figure out my account setup. The other tax-exempt customer was still there when I left.

Now, my clerk told me I could go to any register with my purchase and just give the cashier my tax-exempt number. I was now “in the system,” so it should be smooth sailing.

Guess again. The middle-aged cashier didn't have the slightest idea what to do. Neither did the manager to whom she called for help.

Finally my customer-service clerk came over. She pulled out a little “cheat sheet,” then went through a litany of steps — push F11, select this, select that and so on. When she was all done, the cashier told her she'd gone too fast. She hadn't had a chance to learn the steps. The customer service clerk only responded, “Well, you're just going to have to get used to it!”

I felt bad for the cashier. Very few of the steps had struck me as being intuitive. Nor did the cashier have a little “cheat sheet” in front of her. Unless the cashier either took shorthand or had a photographic memory, she couldn't possibly repeat the process she'd just been shown.

Knowing that most function-key software was written years ago, I figured this store hadn't upgraded its checkouts in quite some time. They really needed a user-friendly interface at the point of sale.

I know of a competing home-improvement store that has touch-screen menus for clerks and cashiers. However, even there, the layout of the menus is dependent on the thinking of the software programmer behind it. A clerk still may not know — or be able to intuit — what to hit to begin processing a tax-exempt purchase.

Not long after, I met another middle-aged woman with computer questions. This time it was in the public library. She was looking for an instructional video on how to use the Windows operating system.

I pointed out one on the shelf, but she said she had already tried it and found it confusing. I then explained to her that, under the “Start” menu on her computer, she'll find the “Help” command. 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 spend hours blindly clicking around than use a computer-help menu. (I guess it's like stopping to ask for driving directions.)

The Real World vs. Theory

How difficult and frustrating it can be to make sense of new software programs! It must be especially stressful for people in fast-paced work environments like retail stores, where lines back up and customers get grouchy over even a brief delay.

I am one of the few people who will actually read a software manual cover to cover. I am living proof that anyone, even people lacking a technical background (like me), can figure these things out with a little time, patience and determination.

The same goes for using the help menus that are offered in most software programs. The thing is, these depend on you entering the correct word or words to describe what you want to know how to do. It's frustrating when the responses to your query don't address the problem you're having.

Most of us use only a small percentage of the features available on the software programs we run. We are bound to need outside help at some point when we need to do something we haven't done before.

Software-support websites can be just as confusing as print manuals and desktop help menus. I was told once that the vast majority of people only drill down two levels on a website before giving up their search for help.

Charles Woodson of the educational psychology department at the University of California did two experiments examining the utility of 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 (“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 instruction manuals or websites. That is why ordinary users find these things so daunting. Online FAQs (“frequently asked questions”) are probably more realistic in helping people precisely because they are based on user problems.

So if you're a self-taught computer “power user,” and feel frustrated by software manuals and websites, know that you are not alone. It is precisely because people like you and me weren't consulted that the manuals and websites are so confusing!

Brother John Raymond is co-founder of the Monks of Adoration in Venice, Florida.

Monthly Web Picks

Annulments are not very well understood by many Catholics, so let's look at sites related to this topic.

Jimmy Akin has a FAQ page on annulments, some of which I have frequently heard on the Catholic Information Network, at cin.org/users/james/files/annulments.htm.

If you are looking for more FAQs on annulments, see Father John T. Catoir's article “Understanding Annulments” at americancatholic.org/Messenger/Sep1998/feature1.asp.

You can also read “Ten Questions About Annulments” by Msgr. Joseph M. Champlin at americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac1002.asp.

See General and Specific Impediments to Sacramental Marriage from the Church's Code of Canon Law on the Vatican's site: vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P3X.HTM.

To find your local diocesan marriage tribunal, go to your diocesan website, which you can locate through the USCCB website, usccb.org/dioceses.htm.