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10 Things I Wish the Average User Knew About Computing

Updated on November 5, 2014
Marilynn Dawson profile image

Born-again Christian single mother of two grown kids. PC Tech, and Author of 18+ books in the non-fiction, personal/spiritual growth genres


Every technician has their list of issues that they run into on a regular basis. Most technicians I've met, don't like dealing with the newbie crowd, those on fixed income, or those who have difficulty catching on to basic computing concepts. Such tend to be the kinds of clients that I see. If I could somehow round them all up and sit them through an introductory course on computers, it would look something similar to this:

Example of front of a computer's tower.
Example of front of a computer's tower.

- The monitor is not the computer.

This is probably the biggest and most common error in understanding that I've seen in the 18 years I've been involved in paid and volunteer tech support. The most extreme case was when I was called out to an elderly lady's home because she'd turned off the computer due to what appeared to be a hacking incident. She'd followed the cable from the computer to the power bar and dutifully unplugged it. When I arrived and sat down to her computer, I thought I saw a faint green light on her tower. I asked her to show me which cable she'd unplugged, and when I followed it back up to the desk, she'd unplugged her monitor. The computer was on the entire time.

No one had explained to her that the device on the desk that lets you see what's going on on your computer, is called a monitor. The computer is the box typically sitting below the desk, or off to one side of it. It has at least three blinking lights, may or may not come with a floppy drive bay, and may or may not come with an optical media tray (for your CD-Roms or DVD's). Your keyboard and mouse, as well as your monitor and a printer if you have one, are all plugged into the back of it. The monitor is just one external component of your entire computer set up.

WinXP Start/Shutdown
WinXP Start/Shutdown
WinXP Pro Shutdown Options
WinXP Pro Shutdown Options

- Turn the computer off the way it's designed,

not by using the power button (which either puts the machine to sleep, or if held down long enough, turns it off the hard way – best reserved for technicians to deal with). This is another incredibly common problem. It's honestly amazing how many people do not know how to properly shut down their computer. Most computers, whether they run Mac, Windows, Linux, or some obscure operating system, have a specific way in which they appreciate their users turning the unit off. In most cases, the user is required to click on, or navigate to and then click on a shut down button or link on the screen. They are then generally asked if they wish to enter sleep mode, hibernation, restart the unit, or continue with shutdown. It is at this point that the final click is made on-screen to shut the machine off.

The computer's power button is only to be used for shutdown purposes when the machine is completely frozen up solid and won't respond to anything. A valid second reason is in the case of highly-active malware that needs to be stopped in it's tracks. In both cases, it is best to have a technician on hand for this harsher method of shutdown. It is possible that during a hard shutdown, information the computer would have properly logged, may be lost or corrupted.

Example of Folder/tree view of your hard drive
Example of Folder/tree view of your hard drive

- Getting pictures off a smartphone or most cameras does not require special software,

simply knowledge of what your computer looks like in folder and tree view. Generally, when you plug in your smartphone or camera these days, modern computer operating systems will treat the data drive on the device as a removable disk and assign it a drive letter. As a removable device, the user is then able to interact with the device as if it were another drive on the computer; deleting files, adding files, copying files from the drive to another location on the computer, and vice versa.

Before computers began adding drive letters to external devices, the only way to get at pictures and other content was by way of specialized software. This isn't necessary anymore. Users simply need to get used to how their hard drive looks. In Windows, you can click the yellow folder in the task bar in win7 and 8x, or click on start, then My Computer in earlier versions. Earlier versions make you click a folders button to bring up the left-hand pane where you can navigate folders as if they were branches of a tree. This allows you to interact not only between folders on your computer, but between those folders and those of your external device.

- “Save as You Go!”

No matter who I run into or what their computer experience otherwise is, this particular mantra can't be chanted enough! People get in the groove of what they are doing and forget to save their document periodically. Microsoft's auto-save feature introduced years ago is partially responsible for this behaviour, but it comes back to bite the odd user on a frequent-enough basis that I encourage users NOT to put their trust in this feature! It is seriously a very good habit to save your document every time you make a major change to it. This way, if your computer crashes while you're in the middle of something terribly important, you won't have to redo as much.

- The folders you set up in your email program are NOT the same as folders on your hard drive.

This is another misconception I run into from time to time. I encourage people to learn how to use their computer's hard drive as an electronic filing cabinet in order to stay organized and find things later. For avid users of email programs such as Outlook, I say the same thing. But every now and then, I get met with someone who has attempted to put both pieces of advice into practise and then royally confuse themselves as to where their files are.

Generally, if you have text, documents, media files, pictures, zip files, or other attachments that you need to save. Save the attachment to a folder on your hard drive so you can find it easier later. If you have emails that you need to save for accounting, legal, sales, project, or other reasons, organize those in your email program. Even some of those you may wish to export to a folder on your hard drive. But you can't re-attach a picture that is still attached to another email, even if that email is neatly organized into a folder in your email program. The two sets of folders ARE different.

- The mysterious way you are able to view and interact with websites and people online is through a program we call a browser.


The top 5 Internet Browsers
The top 5 Internet Browsers | Source

IE, FF, Opera, Chrome, Safari are the big five in the browser space right now, and they each have icons that you click on to open them and get online. In the Windows world, a computer will come default with Internet Explorer's icon on the desktop and in the task bar. In Mac, the default browser is Safari, depicted as a nautical compass. Firefox's icon is a red fox wrapped around a globe. Opera's icon is a big red capital “O” while Chrome's icon reminds me of the old game, “Simon Says” with it's coloured blocks in a round shape. It is important to know which browser you are using in case you run into a website that prefers you use another one. The help desk can help you troubleshoot your interaction better when they know which browser you use to get onto the Internet.

- Your files are NOT stored in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Photoshop, nameyourprogram.

They are stored on the hard drive. I seriously can't count the number of avid computer users who, after years of doing data entry or desktop publishing or reception work, think that their files are stored within a given program. A sure-fire way for a tech to make this discovery is to run a tool such as C Cleaner and tell it to clean up history lists. When the user looks at their Word recently-accessed files list, they will freak out and think you deleted all their files.

NOTE: Programs only create files, they do NOT store them! This is another reason to get used to how your hard drive looks. Most computer operating systems have a default folder called Documents, where typically, most word processor programs will put the files that you create unless you tell it to save somewhere else. Learning how to organize your files in an electronic filing cabinet, and learning how to save to specific folders usually removes this mystifying understanding.

Word's Save As dialogue box. Note the location at the very top of the screen.  The arrow to the right of that location can be clicked, allowing you to choose another location to save your file.
Word's Save As dialogue box. Note the location at the very top of the screen. The arrow to the right of that location can be clicked, allowing you to choose another location to save your file.

- Uploading and downloading are not synonymous words.

These are two terms very often mixed up by casual computer users. To put it simply, uploading refers to when you take a photo off your computer and put it on Facebook for example. Uploading refers to attaching a zip file off your computer to a form on a company website so that they receive the documents you are sending them.

Downloading then, goes the other direction. Downloading takes place when you buy a new song from iTunes and download it to your computer so you can play it. Downloading occurs when you right-click on a public-domain image (and you did check copyright first right?) and then click “save as” to store it on your computer. If the file came off the Internet, you downloaded it. If the file was placed on the Internet, you uploaded it.

- You won't fall over ill and die if you don't forward that email

that's already been unsafely forwarded 20 times now with everyone's email addresses in plain sight for anyone to steal and abuse. This one is more for the anxious, need-to-please, fearful and generally superstitious crowd. Before the days of email, people would send out chain letters promising death and disease if you didn't forward it on to the next 10 people, handwritten! Their names and addresses had to appear at the bottom of the letter to prove you'd done your duty. With the advent of email and social media, these guilt trips now take on many forms, and you honestly won't die, lose your faith, or cause someone to be ashamed of you if you don't forward, repost, re-pin, or in some way spam others with the content you just read. Trust me on this. Give it a try next time and see if you're doing OK an hour later.

Check the on/off/reset button
Check the on/off/reset button

- If the lights won't come on when you turn on your computer, it doesn't mean the computer is dead.

This last one is almost up there with thinking computers are the screen on the desk. (not to say there aren't all-in-one units out there just to blur the lines) I've been called out to various client locations where computers are not booting, nothing on the screen, no response from the mouse, only to discover that the power bar's breaker flipped, or a cable was unplugged from the power outlet. When there are no lights on, chances are there is also no power. Check that everything is attached to a power source at both ends (the power bar and the computer or peripheral) before calling your technician. You'll save them time and yourself money.

Your Turn

What Boggles You About Computers?

See results


These are just 10 of the most common issues that I have run into over the years. As an author, one day these may make their way into a book, or perhaps my own “How to Use Computers” course. Some technicians will laugh at these scenarios, but many of them have turned into very educational moments for my clients. There are people out there who honestly don't know this stuff. Be a friend and pass this on.

How Would You Rate the Difficulty Level of Everyday Computing?

Cast your vote for how easy or difficult you find using computers

© 2014 Marilynn Dawson


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    • BigMarble profile image

      Gregory Jones 

      4 years ago from IL

      I used a computer for several years and still didn't know some of the things you have written about. Thanks for the help! Nice hub.

    • Marilynn Dawson profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilynn Dawson 

      4 years ago

      I too worked for a company that did techsupport via phone and Internet all over the world for several years. Then one day I read a joke about the ID-10-T error. Totally fit some of the issues I had to fix. I tend to "talk to myself" while fixing issues as well, and some of my clients actually claimed to learn something new whenever they were on the phone with me as I fixed their computer. lol. . . I actually have my very own real, live "enter key" and "any key" jokes, but I won't share them publicly out of respect for users at that level. I am encouraging people to share this hub after all. :-)

    • easylearningweb profile image

      Amelia Griggs 

      4 years ago from U.S.

      Years ago I worked at a computer help desk so I encountered all kinds of questions, easy, tricky and some funny ones too. I didn't mind the simple questions, always glad to help. My favorite was when I would help the user troubleshoot and then their issue would magically be fixed...they would ask, so how did you fix that? We would joke around and call those RTFS errors, meaning Read The -Bleeping- Screen. LOL

      Good hub!

    • Marilynn Dawson profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilynn Dawson 

      4 years ago

      Hi Ron, That's exactly why I mentioned the bracketed comment later in this piece. Sony has a really nice all-in-one unit that I have installed at a few business locations in town. The latest iMacs are all-in-one desktops. So the confusion is already prepped and ready to go.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think that users thinking the monitor is the computer will probably become an even bigger issue. For example, I have a monitor on my desk and a wireless keyboard and mouse. The computer, while not out of sight, is usually pretty much out of mind. Unless something unusual happens, my attention is never drawn to it. And as components continue to shrink, pretty soon the monitor probably will be the computer!


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