You Can't Tell People Anything

CHIP MORNINGSTAR (2004): A new idea or a new plan or a new technique is never really understood when you just explain it. People will often think they understand, and they’ll say they understand, but then their actions show that it just ain’t so.

Years ago, one of the things I did was travel around the country trying to evangelize the idea of hypertext. People loved it, but nobody got it. Nobody. We provided lots of explanation. We had pictures. We had scenarios, little stories that told what it would be like. People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood. We didn’t have much of an experience to deliver to them though — after all, the whole point of all this evangelizing was to get people to give us money to pay for developing the software in the first place! But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.

Eventually people can be educated, but what you have to do is find a way give them the experience, to put them in the situation. With luck, eventually there will be an “Aha!”. If you’re really good, the “Aha!” will followed by “Oh, so that’s what you meant”. But don’t be too surprised or upset if the “Aha!” is instead followed by “Why didn’t you tell me that?”. At we developed a system called Passport that let us do some pretty amazing things with web browsers. For example, with just a few magic HTML tags we could stick avatars on a web page — pretty much any web page. For months Randy kept getting up at management meetings and saying, “We’ll be able to put avatars on web pages. Start thinking about what you might do with that.” Mostly, nobody reacted much. After a couple of months of this we had things working, and so he got up and presented a demo of avatars walking around on top of our company home page. People were amazed, joyful, and enthusiastic. But they also pretty much all said the same thing: “why didn’t you tell us that we could put avatars on web pages?” You can’t tell people anything.