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The Plight of the Average User

Over the course of the last four years of doing Ask Leo! I’ve also learned a lot about
computer 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, too.

And these are things I wish a lot more people would realize and
understand. People from the executives at my former employer, to some
of the people that comment on my answers.

The “average computer user” is not who you think.

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Those of us “in the industry” are frequently afflicted with a kind
of myopia or tunnel vision. We often see things the way we want them to
be, or use some preconception of the way we think they are, rather than
actually looking at the way things really are.

Like the people that use our products.

And, I must admit to being guilty myself. My perception of the
average computer user has changed dramatically over the last four

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, since much of what you’d ideally like people to learn is
why something behaves the way that it does, so that the “why”
can be generalized to other situations.

Second revelation: because of the first, people are not nearly as
technically savvy as we might want them to be, or as we might believe.
I’m not trying to be judgmental here, it’s an observation built over
the experience of the last few years. People who are searching for
assistance on the web are frequently those least able to comprehend and
execute the majority of answers that they find.

“The average computer user is ultimately exactly
right and justified in their position. Things should just work.”

My first questions on Ask Leo! were primarily those 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
basic and fundamental. I now try to provide a variety, but it’s still
driven primarily by the volume of questions that are submitted to the

I try to make the answers and my recommendations accessible to that
average user. It’s not always easy, since the products we’re dealing
with here aren’t always designed with that average user in mind. And I do frequently hear that I’m too technical, and that I’m not technical enough.
It’s not an easy line to walk.

For example, if a Windows product requires the average user to
ever fire up the registry editor to resolve an issue, that
product has failed to meet the needs of the average user. Many
programs, including Windows itself, fall into this category.

Similarly, 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 repeatedly, though some are
getting better.

I frequently get comments on articles here that boil down to “I
don’t see the problem – my mother / grandmother / toddler can do this
without any issues whatsoever”. If that’s the case, then your mother,
grandmother 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.

I don’t want to make light of 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 ultimately exactly right and 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 simply isn’t there.

But that’s not where things stand.

So to all of “us” in the industry: take some time to really consider
whether or not 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.

And 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 mean time and in a more practical vein, the more you can
bring yourself to take an interest and learn perhaps a little more than
you want to, the better off you’ll be.

But that need is our mistake, not yours.

Do this

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22 comments on “The Plight of the Average User”

  1. To an extent, you’ve echoed what Steve Krug said in “Don’t Make Me Think” back in 2000. People don’t want to *understand* it. They want to *use* it. Anything that makes them stop and think is something likely to make them just stop.

    Whether it’s web site usability, application usability, or OS usability, it all boils down to a good UI. UI’s are still more art than science and even Apple’s much vaunted HID (Human Interface Design) principles tend to force you to do things the way they want than make things simple.

    Take for example how easy it is to re-size a window from just about any corner or border in Windows or certain Linux window managers, but in OS X you can only do it from the lower right corner.

    Look at how Quicktime for Mac always starts AT TOP VOLUME and there’s no way to change that, even though people have been complaining about it for years.

    I’m not trying to start an Apple bashing fest. I’m just showing that even the company that is most celebrated for its UI misses the boat occasionally (and then it’s fans claim you’re just too stupid to understand why it doesn’t want to be on the boat).

    And even in Linux you still have the battle going on between KDE and Gnome.

    I don’t think there is an “average user”. I think there are niches within which we can find averages.

  2. This reminds me of two things:
    1. In calculus class, two engineering major constantly interrupting our understanding of the essential theory which made it all work so wonderfully with their incessant “What’s it good for?” queries. Is it any wonder constructs topple when the builders won’t learn the constraints?
    2. Trying to convince a programmer that using libraries is not simply avoiding “re-inventing the wheel”, it is more “missing other’s mistakes”.
    These are merely indicators of a prevalent disease in our culture – the avoidance of knowledge. Thanks for not being infected!

  3. Leo,

    You nailed it!! Great article. Over and over, I hear the same comment: ‘Don’t tell me HOW it works, just fix it so it works!!’ I try to educate my friends and family so they can fix it themselves. Never happens. No curiosity about the single most expensive appliance (excluding HD TVs) they own. Always surprises me. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis of ‘why’ people are that way.

  4. I completely agree. Tunnel vision also explains why most documentation isn’t worth the electrons used to display it.

  5. Just to echo what Jack and Michael have said. I fix computers for people all the time, often repairing the same machines over and over which have become unusable because the owners will not listen to any advice you may give them.Some people expect a PC to be like a TV – just switch it on and it works, but are not interested in learning anything about how to look after it!

  6. A computer IS just a tool, just like my car is a tool. I do not need to know anything about my car, other than how to turn it on and off, and when to have maintenance done, to keep it working for years. Is this too much to expect from a computer? All programmers suffer from the “everybody knows that” syndrome, so info that everyone needs to know is never explained anywhere.

  7. Begaining in the year 2000 I started learning and “helping” users on Expert-Exchange help site.
    I found out that people want “steps” to solve their problems.

  8. Good description/explanation of a persistent and long-lived situation. With half of an engineering degree and all of a journalism degree, I started deciphering the ramblings of our engineering staff at a large, midwest company getting into the beginnings of the electronics industry in the late 60’s. We had process control computers, electronic components, test equipment and silicon. The general feeling was “if the customer isn’t interested enough to learn how to use our product, too bad!”
    Luckily, some enlightened managers were brought in from the consumers “electronics” market who understood that it was our job to make the equipment intuitive and the IOM (Installation, Operation and Maintenance) manuals readable and instructive.
    My latest experience was to click on the Help link in new software, told to consult the manual, which in turn told me to consult the Help link.
    Thanks for the continuing information and sense of humor.

  9. I am a confessed “average user” and I further confess that I do not know what that means for others just for myself. I do admit to a general lack of inquisitiveness where the inner working of computers is concerned. I “do” want steps for the mitigation of “problems” even if they are self-induced.
    For those of you in the know about all things IT your starting point about us average users should be the realization that it is through “steps” that we learn. Nothing else will suffice.
    It is the nature of this industry to change rapidly and by the time most of have learned the steps……they all have changed and the process begins anew.
    If as an IT person you are not involved in the industry for profit then you can afford to have cognitive dissonance about us “average users”, however, if profit is a consideration….at your peril you forget……THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS CORRECT!

  10. One thing the pc industry has had a great deal of difficulty digesting, is that the “average user” is like the average car driver. He expects to get in the car, put the key in the ignition and drive the car, any car, from any manufacturer. He doesn’t give a wit about how the car works and doesn’t know a connecting rod from a piston from a pinion gear,etc. What’s more he doesn’t want to know,doesn’t have time to learn and he shouldn’t have to. Until the computer industry can digest this concept, we’ll continue to curse and swear and get frustrated and Leo and others like him will remain employed.

  11. I am in the IT support industry and I have found there are two types of “average users”. Those that want to learn what happened/went wrong, and then those that just want you to shut up and fix the thing.
    I find that by talking the user through the problem and the fix that it eventually stops the problem from happening which in turn makes the user and me happy. Unfortunately not all people want to hear about what it takes to fix the problem or to stop it from happening. There are always going to be people like this and it is something that we are just gonig to have to accept. You cant teach something to someone that is not interested.

  12. In the CPM days I tested and fixed computers, writing assembly language code to do some of the testing.
    As IBM PC’s came online I maintained PC’s and wrote code to run simple tasks on them.
    With the advent of “point and click” I moved away from what was going on inside the computers and became a “computer user”.
    As with all technology, as it gets more complicated we evolve from makers to users and let someone else specialize in the tasks of making and maintaining the technology.
    This has been happening since prehistoric times and will continue. Once we made our own arrow heads, cured hides, weaved baskets, etc. But it became better to allocate these tasks to people who specialized in doing them. Leaving the rest of us to purse other tasks.

    This is progress.?.

  13. Having taught quite a few of how to use Word and the Internet and email, you are absolutely right- I tried showing them how to update antivirus software, adaware, etc. It’s a no-go. Everything must be in the background for the non-savvy computer user- Not ‘average’, but non-savvy. ‘Burning’ backups to a disk?- forget it!
    I try to emphasize the importance of just reading the info on a window that pops up- another no-go.

  14. Hear, hear! Right on as usual. I find myself wondering over and over how the average Joe or Jane ever manages to use a computer without a tecchie relative. Computers still aren’t designed to be used by normal people. I’m sure that a lot of people who read your column are the free tech support / help desk for brothers, sisters, neighbors, cousins, friends, and the cubicle next door! Without these helpful gearheads, perhaps civilization would grind to a halt! That should be the next national holiday – “Appreciate your geek week!”

  15. Excellent! I’ve been in the computer field for over 30 years, starting with HUGE (comparatively speaking) TTL-based machines. Your observances of an ‘average user’ are as correct today as they would have been ‘back then’. Yes..things SHOULD just work..and, as you said, that is NOT how it is.


  16. Everyone I read since my last comment says the same thing – No Interest. I think we ‘gearheads’ have got to work on stimulating interest in our friends/relatives/clients. A computer is NEVER (in my lifetime-but I’m so old I owned an Apple and an Apple II) going to be a self-repairing, automatically operating device like TV. We have to work out a way to get people interested, even a little bit, in what’s going on inside the software/hardware of THEIR computers. What do we do??

  17. Boy, do I feel encouraged reading all the comments. I feel so stupid all the time. I really want to know how my computer works, but don’t even know where to begin. I don’t like it, but people need a home PC now, so I have to bite the bullet and LEARN. Where do I go for a comprehensive, basic forum to learn all I need to learn about my PC? Or should I take classes? I also want to say, “Thanks for all the geeks out there who donate their time, talents and resources for helping people like me!” We really should legislate a national holiday for them!

  18. I love this article.
    It has taken me 7yrs almost everyday to
    learn what i know about computers.
    But like leo says you need to have the basic
    knowledge to get by.
    This is by far the best article ive ever read
    on this subject.
    Straight to the point.

  19. I’ve often thought that the computer industry might eventually turn into a utility, which in turn provides turn-key computer services to the public as in a portal, wherein techincal issues remain behind the scenes at the utilities headquarters, wherein experts handle the technical issues, and consumers simply “use.” Much like a telephone. Buy the service. The issues are handled outside. All one should have to do is “plug” in and “go.” The resources of the utility would keep up with latest technology and advancements in speed, capacity, etc.

    Just a dream in my happy place. I certainly respect the knowledge and genius of those with technical minds that can figure computers out.

  20. This editorial explains exactly why I like your column. Even though I can understand the Geeky answers,(at least most of the time) I still prefer the simple walk through approach. Even though I often disagree with what you say, you allow users to post comments and opinions and you aren’t afraid to let it stay on your pages. I was impressed with the usually respectful and intelligent comments of your users but I realized after reading on your leo…org wesite that not all the people who write you have a clue. Those dumb questions are some of the funniest things I’ve read.

  21. I find that many techies are unable to explain computer concepts in untechnical terms. A neighbour friend of mine was taking an evening computer course at which the instructor tried (for over half an hour) to explain how floppy disks (remember those?) worked. This included concepts like formatting, etc. At the end of the explanation my friend was as confused as ever. I explained it in under one minute by comparing an unformatted disk to a freshly paved parking lot. Nobody knows where to park until the lines are painted (formatted). The lot is organized into fixed sized parking spots (clusters). Parking a vehicle is analagous to saving a file. If you have a vehicle with a trailer you need more than one parking spot. If you can’t find two adjacent (end to end) spots you have to disconnect the trailer and park it in another non-connected spot (fragmentation). She got the concepts immediately.

    Even more technical concepts can be easily explained. A professor friend explains allocation of critical resources in computer systems via the bathroom analogy (surely a critical resource). It is both elegant and complete and even non-techies quickly grasp the fundamentals.


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