How software users become champions

Matthew Syed is a British sports journalist and former three times Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who has been investigating what is needed to make people excellent at doing any task involving complexity.

He argues that natural talent, your genes, are far less important than many people think. What’s important is practising what you can’t quite do. He argues we grow if we test our limitations, because our body adapts.

So what on earth does that have to do with developing software and Technical Authors? Syed argues there are two opposing views regarding success:

  1. One “school” believes talent is what makes success. This means that if you fail, you believe it’s because you don’t have enough talent. Therefore, you’re likely to give up.
  2. The other “school” believes success is all about practice – the quantity of practice, the quality of teaching and the willingness to test our limitations. This means that if you fail, you believe you can succeed with more perseverance and effort. It’s an opportunity to adapt and grow.

I would argue the whole philosophy of User Assistance is based around the belief that talent is all about practice. It’s easy to forget that others may think it’s all about talent – your developers may believe some users fail because they are stupid, and some of your users may believe they’re just not good enough to succeed. It’s worth checking what they believe.

Another implication is that we should provide assistance and guidance to users as they are doing the task. We should try to avoid interrupting their flow. This suggests providing Help and advice within the application screens themselves.

Thirdly, we should praise people for their effort rather than for their talent.


BBC Radio 4 Four Thought

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