As a software designers, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of assuming that users think and act the same ways we do. As a white-collar software professional, you likely have a college education and perhaps an advanced degree, you probably approach problems in a logical and analytical way, and you know how to operate and troubleshoot computers and software. And, evidently, you read books. But if you’re creating consumer products or websites for the general public, you can’t assume that the majority of your customers are like you in these regards!
If you work with a computer all day, it’s easy to assume that, since virtually everybody owns a computer and a smartphone nowadays, everybody has a basic level of computer literacy. But this can be dangerous. The rudimentary skills and knowledge that you may hold as self-evident aren’t necessarily widespread in all user communities. Here are some anecdotes from my personal experience to illustrate this:
Just recently I spoke with a fellow who I assumed had reasonable computing skills because he was able to use e-mail and Facebook, but when I used the term “cut-and-paste” in conversation, he didn’t understand what I meant, and it quickly became clear that he was not familiar with the mechanisms of selecting text and copying it to another location.
Casual home computer users can often manage to “get by” without knowing all the tricks and techniques. When you think about it, how would a brand new computer user discover the concept of cutting-and-pasting and the steps to do it? Computers today rarely come with operating manuals, and there are certainly books for beginners that explain this sort of material, but how many beginning users buy and read such books? Most users pick up skills like these by observing someone else doing it. In an office environment, people have many opportunities to watch other users; someone living alone and not using a computer at their job will probably have fewer chances of observing other users, and they may struggle with their home computer.
But it’s not only casual home computer users that struggle. I once worked in a project during the early 2000’s to replace a legacy enterprise system. The operators used “green screen” dumb terminals connected to a mainframe. Many of the operators had been using this system for nearly thirty years and were highly proficient, and so we assumed that, because of their computing experience, while there would be a learning curve with the new system, there wouldn’t be any great challenges. But the instructors who were training the staff to use the new system quickly discovered that a few of the operators didn’t know to operate a mouse and were unfamiliar with graphical user interfaces. Evidently their computer use did not extend past their job descriptions.
It’s all too easy to make assumptions like these, and talking to users and observing them is the only way to really understand how they think and work. If you find that your users’ limited skills will prevent them from being able to use your product for its intended purpose, you’ll need to give some thought to either modifying the interface so that they can get their tasks done, or you’ll need to come up with a way to give the users the information or skills they’ll need. If you don’t, users will struggle, and they’ll resent and blame your product.
In a corporate environment, you may be able to schedule training sessions to teach your users how to use the application. For mass-market products, since training sessions aren’t really an option, you’ll have to consider things like cues and clues in the interface, user manuals, help systems, and sample projects. A good tutorial can make all the difference to users starting out with your product, and a video walkthrough may hold your users’ attention longer than a text-based tutorial document.
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