Basic vs. Advanced – the psychological deterrent to efficient Office usage!

Many training programs and books are divided into two varieties – Basic and Advanced. This classification gets ingrained in the mind of users who have neither attended any training nor read any book. From what I have observed and analyzed over the last decade, this thought process is a key deterrent to effective and efficient usage of Microsoft Office. At least I have not come across any source which discusses this issue. Therefore, I am addressing it in this article.

This is a continuation of earlier posts. Please read the following posts before reading this one in order to understand the context and maintain continuity of thought.

Microsoft Office Paradox – everyone uses but nobody cares
Office Efficiency Session: What does the audience think?

The word Office means Microsoft Office in this article.

The mindset

Why do we use Microsoft Office? For getting our work done. What is our work? Those pieces which are not automated – and need to be done manually. This type of work takes up lot of time 3 to 4 hours a day depending upon the role.

Now, is everyone REALLY interested in exploring Office fully – out of curiosity, interest or passion? I don’t think so – unless you are an Office trainer or work on a related area.

I am not saying that there is no desire to learn or curiosity is dead. But the desire to learn is specific to your area of expertise, interest or revenue generation. An HR person would like to become a more accomplished HR person, an engineer would like to expand her horizon beyond the base field into other related areas and so on.

In short, people ARE interested in further learning and exploration in fields and subjects which lead to their career growth. Nothing wrong with that.

But does Office fall into that category? Unfortunately not.

Did Office contribute to your growth – from a trainee to whatever you are right now?

I don’t think any person would answer YES to this question. Most users would have been exposed to at least three versions of Office in their career. The starting version may differ based upon your age, but the question is – did upgrading Office version increase my efficiency? Usually the answer is negative.

Most people get new version of Office because of two common reasons: They changed their laptop which happened to have a newer version or the IT team decided to upgrade Office.

In either case, there was no demand from user side to upgrade. They were happy with whatever version was available with them.

In short, Office has nothing to do with growth in your career. That is the conclusion which is so well entrenched in the minds of people that it is not even discussed openly.

Who decides which topic is Basic or Advanced?

The training course designer or the book writers decide this – but that is only for their operational convenience. The word Advanced is not used in the true sense here. It is like Part 1 and Part 2. The word Advanced does seem to increase the glamour associated with the title of the book and therefore, it is in rampant use.

Microsoft never classified a particular feature as basic or advanced. I do agree that there are some buttons like Advanced – but those actually meant something like “More Options”. The buttons like Advanced, Options, More, Special, etc. are there basically to optimize the available screen space. This was required in earlier days of low resolution. Now with most screens being HD this is a redundant UI facility. However, there is so much backward compatibility related stuff that goes on with Microsoft Office that every dialog has never been re-optimized visually.

Psychologically however, users are subconsciously using this methodology to classify whatever they see on the screen as basic or advanced.

I already know Office.

Most users have convinced themselves about this. They have work to do using Office and they have figured out a way to get it done. How did they find the method? Most people will not remember the exact source. But generally it is random trial and error or asking each other (or searching on web – which is same as asking each other)!

In any case, once a method works, you start using it and live with it lifelong. This is how Office is used by most users globally. With this kind of usage pattern, it is natural for users to get a false sense of adequacy of Office knowledge.

This sense of “I Know Office” reflects itself when there is something in front of you – a new feature – a new option, a tab in a dialog which you have never clicked on, a “more…” button and so on.. Ideally, in the absence of any bias, human curiosity would get activated and you would attempt to find out what that thing does – at least briefly.

But in case of Microsoft Office that curiosity is completely missing. The reason? Basic and Advanced thought process.

User perception of Basic vs. Advanced features

I have tested this hundreds of times using a simple game I play with the audience. I tell them that I will show them one feature each from Word, Excel, PowerPoint (or whichever Office product is to be covered in that session). After each demo, I conduct a poll to get the classification of that feature as Basic or Advanced from the audience.

None of the features demonstrated are new in the latest version – they are not cutting edge technology demos which you typically find in “What’s New” kind of content. But the features are extremely relevant to everyone. Obviously choice of the features and the way you communicate the benefits also matters.

After first demo, majority of people say this was Advanced. But the rest of them are confused and smiling.

Second time, everyone is smiling but still a small  percentage of people persist with the Advanced classification.

After the third demo – everyone is smiling – sheepishly – and they agree that all three features are Basic.

Now the reality dawns upon them – slowly but surely.

What you know is basic and
what you don’t want to know
is conveniently labeled as advanced!

This is the problem faced by Microsoft Office since its earliest days. Microsoft has genuinely tried to observe, analyze and anticipate every conceivable need or problem or inconvenience of users for all kinds of activities. They have added relevant features to solve those problems, automate or simplify inefficient steps or provide a completely different a better way of handling the situation.

This is how more features are added year on year – for 25+ years now.

Nobody feels bad about not exploring because in their mind, Office is not a part of their personal or organizational growth strategy. It is just a tool they use for most of their working lives without really understanding it fully.

If you don’t know something, you either learn it or you call it Advanced. The second option is much easier!

Psychological Barrier leads to global inefficiency

This barrier leads to a very dangerous combination of one conscious and one subconscious thought:

  • Conscious thought: I already know what I need to know
  • Subconscious thought: What I don’t know is advanced – which means I don’t want to learn it – but saying that sounds bad – even if you are saying that to yourself – so you justify it by convincing yourself  that you don’t need it.
    The short version is What I don’t know, I don’t need!

    What is the right way?

    Now that we know the problem, the solution is simple – at least conceptually. The idea is to change the mindset from bad to good.

    Bad Mindset:
    What I don’t know, I don’t need!

    Good Mindset:
    Let me explore first and then decide whether I need it.

    How to do this on a large scale?

    If you consider the number of features and number of users, the combinations are too many to handle. Therefore, traditional approaches to training are simply not going to work.

    The approach which I have found useful is to provide generic but powerful knowledge to people which will give them some immediate benefits and also stimulate their curiosity and exploratory capability so that they continue to get incremental benefit on a long term basis. We will cover this approach in a future article.

    Red rose