In a word: frustrating.
Over the last
four twenty years of doing Ask Leo!, I’ve learned a lot about computers and technology myself. The old adage about learning something by teaching it is very, very true.
But I’ve also learned a thing or two about you, the people trying to use computers.
These are things I wish more people would realize and understand — everyone from the executives at my former employer to some of the people who comment on my answers.
The “average computer user” is not who you think they are.
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The average user
Over 20 years, I’ve learned the average computer user just wants their technology to work. They don’t want to understand the technical details. Many users are just not as tech-savvy as the industry assumes. Despite improvements, the average user’s needs for simplicity and ease of use remains unmet.
Those of us in the industry are often afflicted with a kind of myopia or tunnel vision. We may see things the way we want them to be, or use some preconceived notion of the way we think they are, rather than looking at how things really are.
Such as the people who use our products.
I must admit to being guilty myself. My perception of the average computer user has changed dramatically over the last
four twenty years.
Just make it work
The biggest, single revelation?
Most people don’t want to know how things work or why things work; they just want them to work. Simple as that. The average user isn’t interested in their computer. It’s not a toy, it’s a tool.
This makes education an interesting challenge. Much of what I’d like people to learn is why something behaves the way it does so that the “why” can be generalized to other situations.
Tech savvy? Not so much
Second revelation: in light of revelation #1, people are not nearly as technically savvy as we might believe or want them to be.
I’m not trying to be judgmental here; this is an observation built over my years of experience. People who search for assistance online are frequently those least able to comprehend and execute the majority of answers that they find.
My first questions on Ask Leo! were primarily from friends, and hence a little more technical than others. It didn’t take long, though, for my sense of what needed to be answered to shift to the more fundamental. I now try to answer a variety of types of questions, but my work is driven primarily by questions that are submitted to the site.
I try to make my answers and recommendations accessible to that average user. It’s not always easy, since the products we’re dealing with aren’t always designed with that average user in mind.
I frequently hear that I’m too technical — and that I’m not technical enough.1 It’s not an easy line to walk.
Average user fail
If a Windows product requires the average user to fire up the registry editor to resolve an issue, that product has failed to meet the needs of the average user. While it’s improved over time, many programs, including Windows itself, fall into this category.
If hand-editing settings in a text file is required to configure an application or make a change, then that application has similarly failed to meet the needs of the average user. Most Linux distributions fall into this category, though some are getting better.
I frequently get comments on articles that boil down to “I don’t see the problem. My mother / grandfather / toddler can do this without any issues whatsoever.” If that’s the case, then your mother, grandfather, or toddler is decidedly not an average computer user. I’m happy for them, since they clearly have a leg up on things and that will serve them well, but to generalize their experience to the rest of the populace is, I’m finding, a very big mistake.
They are the exceptions, not the rule.
Making software usable
I don’t want to make light of all this; I know it’s hard — damned hard, in fact — to make software accessible to the masses. But that’s exactly what we expect of today’s vendors.
In fact, it’s exactly what they claim they do.
Except that over and over again, they don’t.
The average computer user is justified in their position. Things should just work. Things shouldn’t be as hard as they often are, and explanations shouldn’t assume a level of knowledge or interest that isn’t there.
A 20-year update
As the strike-outs above indicate, I originally wrote this little rant four years into doing Ask Leo!
It’s now 20 years in.
Ultimately, not a lot has changed. A few things have improved, and the target(s) of our frustrations may have changed, but the fundamental concept remains.
Too many software vendors and online services don’t truly understand the average computer user. And many of those users continue to suffer because of it.
We should do better.
To all of “us” in the industry: consider whether you have a clear picture of what I keep calling the average computer user. I’ll bet you don’t, and some of your customers are suffering because of it.
To those average computer users, all I can say is hang in there. Despite frequent evidence to the contrary, the industry is trying. In the meantime, and in a more practical vein, the more you can bring yourself to learn perhaps a little more than you want to, the better off you’ll be.
But that need is our mistake, not yours.
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Footnotes & References
1: Occasionally on the exact same article or video.