Oops, No LibreOffice – when Help Files Are Less Than Helpful

This week I had another example of how what I think is simple might be difficult for others. One of my clients purchased a new laptop about a month ago and had me help her set it up while I was at their office doing some work for her husband.

The difficulty came when we ran out of time before I was completely done. She had already declined to activate the trial Microsoft Office Suite that comes with new PCs. She wanted something to be able to write letters and was prepared to use WordPad or some such. I suggested she download and install LibreOffice, which has become one of my favorite free downloads. I showed her what it looks like on my laptop, and she was suitably impressed. “I want it,” she said, but I had another commitment and had to leave. So I navigated with her to the LibreOffice site, and I told her she was on her own. I advised her to simply download and install it, and she would have an office suite that could read and generate documents in almost any format she wanted along with a spreadsheet that actually has some advantages over Excel (advantages for geeks doing design work, anyway, not necessarily for CPAs).

Oops, No LibreOffice - When Help Files are Less Than HelpfulTime passed, and I had to return to their office for some IT work on her husband’s system. I asked her in passing how the LibreOffice was working for her. She said she never was able to download it. Huh? I had left her on the download page and have never heard of anyone having difficulties. A quick look at her computer showed that she had downloaded the LibreOffice help files, but had not downloaded the suite itself! No wonder nothing worked.

We navigated back to that page and before I could say anything, she said pointed to the various green lines and said she had no idea which one she wanted, so she just clicked on one that looked helpful — the help files. What to me looked straightforward was to her a maze.

Within minutes we had her set up with a functioning system, including the help files, and she was very pleased. I started to show her how to save a file in .docx or .doc format so it could be exchanged with Word users, but thought better. I bit my tongue and simply saved and restored a file for her.

Given her previous problems, I saw no reason to introduce new concepts that I think are trivially simple, but which could impede her progress. A better strategy seems to be to let her write, save, and restore some files in the default open document format. Then after she feels comfortable, or when a need arises, show her the difference between “Save” and “Save as.” That is, let her conquer one goal at a time rather than assuming she can assimilate a whole new mindset in one tutoring session.

This sounds trivial, but when dealing with mature users who are only marginally computer literate, one can often find that clients have a totally different mental model of what is happening than you do. How you deal with that will determine whether you are an effective tutor or not.

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