I just read an interesting proposition (sorry for not even remembering the source):
Stop reading the news. They have been filtered, manipulated and are ultimately useless for your daily life. Save that time and learn something new instead.
This maybe inspiring for some of us because it encloses at least three first-world-21st-century problems: i) we don't have enough time, still ii) we waste a lot of it on internet and iii) we all want to do something more meaningful. It is even more inviting now than ever, with unbelievable free educational resources like: coursera.org, iTunes U, MIT OpenCourseWare or Stanford Online. And, still, you just won't do it... this is why.
You don't have a use case. A use case is a concept I learned back on my software engineering days and is associated with the interactions required between a user and a system to achieve a goal. The key here is on goal. When designing a system, the use case forces you to establish what are the goals a user might want to achieve when using it.
Simple... but extremely powerful I must say. In a design process, where the blueprints of the house can become extremely complex, and the inner details on how to build it seduce you with their own challenges, it is absolutely mandatory that you do not lose the perspective on what the person really wants to achieve, wants to feel. It is interesting to note how, in the early days of personal computing, competition was based on more and more use cases (software with more and more features); that's how we ended up with things like MS Office (and its incomprehensible list of options). With the adoption of mobile computing, competition has shifted to very narrow use cases, with extremely polished and intuitive interfaces (say Instagram, for instance). There are also examples of bad product design due excess of features and absence of use cases, as the famous (among some of us) flop of Google Wave.
The use case is the fundamental measure of action. It is the reason why someone uses something. And even though today you can access all the knowledge in the world for free, from the comfort of your couch, you will just don't do it if you have no use case for it. Education needs a use case to be compelling too. I spent 3 months learning Objective C online using the Stanford freely available course only because I wanted to build my app. I would have never done it if I did not have that purpose in mind.
This brings us to the always interesting question of: do we give students at school or college a use case for what they learn? Do they know how they can apply that knowledge to? Unless things have changed since I graduated, the answer is no. I wonder how a teachers manage to motivate someone to study something that she doesn't know what is useful for. I guess you can always rely on "beacuse you have to!"
Back when I studied telecom engineering, I must confess that I did not understand anything until the last two years of college, right when we actually started applying knowledge in the lab. I realised that the whole curriculum was upside down. Why don't you start from the end? Show us the practical application of engineering and dive deeper into the phenomena that goes on behind the scenes afterwards. That would have given us the perspective of why. Instead, we spent the first years learning fundamentals of physics, algebra, calculus, electronics and then build on that to become a practitioner. Intuitive... but useless. I wonder how many people would have stayed at college if you do it backwards.
Use cases may seem simple enough to neglect its importance, but they do provide the most fundamental values: perspective and purpose. I try (and fail) to make sure that everything I do has at least a use case, and hopefully a meaningful one. And even though this post follows a storyline of you won't learn anything new because you don't know what to do it for, it should be read differently. Set yourself the craziest of the goals, if knowledge is what you need, for the first time in history, it is is freely available for you... if only you stop reading news and blogs like this ;)