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The Plight of the Average User

In a word: frustrating.

Most folks "in the industry" don't have a sense of the average computer user. After 20 years of Ask Leo!, I've formed an opinion.
A photorealistic 16:9 image showing a diverse group of average computer users, each representing different ages and backgrounds, gathered around a modern, user-friendly computer setup. They are displaying a range of emotions from confusion to relief, illustrating their journey with technology over 20 years. The scene highlights the evolution from complex, intimidating technology to simple, intuitive interfaces, emphasizing the users' desire for straightforward, functional technology. The environment should look like a comfortable, everyday setting, reflecting the everyday struggles and victories of average computer users.
(Image: DALL-E 3)

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.

Do this

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.

30 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 website that not all the people who write you have a clue. Those dumb questions are some of the funniest things I’ve read.
    (I wrote this 2 years before working with Leo)

  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.

  22. HEAR HEAR…yes, THIS

    And to those of you deploring that the average user doesn’t want to spend hours understanding the tech to make their computer work and accomplish tasks that are now expected of everyone, consider that they probably know a lot more than you ever will or care to about something like how to make sick people feel better, how human civilizations began, how to grow organic vegetables, how to play a complicated classical musical composition… and these are the things they want, and need, to put their very limited time and effort into. And maybe their families and a few recreational activities too.

  23. Everything changes but it is still mostly the same 16 years on!

    I hear you regarding folk like me, the average user, not wanting to “mess with” the registry.

    I really want to stop the start menu searches from using Bing and opening in Edge, but I have been unable to learn how to do so without registry changes.

    I look forward to what you seem to hope for also, that the “average user” will soon be me, as I actually am, not as they think I should be.

    Thank you Leo for knowing this!

  24. I have to agree with almost everything that I read in this article and the comments. Years ago, I was a very competent tech in the industry. I could do things with our product that even the engineers had to think hard to see how I did them. Times changed, and now I am one of these users, who just wants the thing to work. Right. And reliably.
    I also worked as a programmer/ coder for an avionics company. From that experience, I have determined that most of the stuff written for PCs nowadays are NOT written by programmers. The applications are not easy, nor intuitive, and updates don’t necessarily mean Improvement.

    • You were a hacker. Those were the old days when a hacker was a person who could make a computer or a program do more than it was designed to do.

      When I was designing and coding programs, I’d work hard to keep keystrokes to an absolute minimum. When Word Perfect came out, I designed my programs to follow similar standards to Word Perfect. I used the same Function keys and keyboard shortcuts whenever possible because most office workers used Word Perfect. I emulated as much of their interface as was practical. That made it easy for people to use my software. Word Perfect was so popular that Microsoft had a Word Perfect compatibility mode that accepted all of Word Perfect’s Function Keys and shortcuts.

      One of the biggest problems with programs is lack of interface standardization.

      Program designers should be aware of reducing the learning curve

  25. I’ve always been a ‘Computer Geek’. Back in the MS-DOS days, I studied Assembly Language so I could develop small utilities to make DOS do things it didn’t out of the box. While learning Assembly, I learned a lot about how my computer worked, and at a fundamental level, much of what I learned still applies, even though the CPU has many more registers today, and it can access much more RAM without ‘paging’.

    Please don’t be upset with me if most of what I just wrote reads like so much gobbledygook, because for the average user it should. The ‘average user’ should never need to understand what’s happening ‘under the hood’.

    I worked as a tech-Support Agent for an Internet Service provider for a few years. My understanding of how an Internet connection worked and the protocols it used came in very handy for me. I used what I knew to make fixing a user’s connection as easy as possible when I could. I never expected users to know anything about how their computer’s worked, or how to fix them when they broke (stopped working correctly). Instead, I’d walk them through whatever arcane procedure was needed, step-by-step, making sure they were on the same page as me as we worked through their issue. Often, when their connection was working as expected again, they’d tell me that their experience with me was much easier than the last time they had to call for help (to me, that should never have happened), but those comments were what I really worked for. When a user would tell me that they’re not very technically savvy, I’d ask them “Why should you be, that’s my job”. There were procedures I was expected to follow, and I did so as to satisfy my employer, but my real objective was to get things working again, or get a technician out to fix everything for the user as soon as possible (many issues were hardware related, and I couldn’t fix broken hardware from the office I worked in).

    I agree with everything Leo says here. As technology advances, it should get easier for the average user to fix problems, and they shouldn’t need technical support to guide them. Microsoft has added some very good ‘troubleshooters’ to Windows, and that’s great, but the user shouldn’t have to know how to use or find them. They should be able to click on a ‘Help’ button or do a search (on the taskbar – something like ‘No Internet?’) to find out how to get to the automated troubleshooting software they need. that, at least, would be a start to getting technology to where if should be for the average user.


    Ernie (Oldster)

  26. This issue has been a hot one with me for years so I’m glad to see it come up here. How many times have we all screamed in despair at instructions that say ” Go to X, then click on Y….”? The problem with explaining almost anything is unwarranted assumptions about the learners knowledge base. In the example above the assumptions are: We know what X is. We know how
    to get there. We know what to do if we can’t find it. Also, if I do find it, what do we do when the Y that is supposed to be clicked on isn’t there or is now called something else? I have been torpedoed by all of those situations way too many times. In these situations, there is no such thing as TMI (Too Much Information). Notice I didn’t assume that all potential readers knew what TMI meant. A silly example, but who knows? That’s the point. Just because it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean it is obvious to someone else. Remember the person following your directions can’t ask clarification questions, so you have to be very explicit about each individual step the first time around. This is the reverse side of what tech people ask for when you go to a tech site for help. They want all the details you can give about the problem.
    As a related gripe: Has anyone ever found what they were looking for on a
    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page?

  27. It seems like one problem is that program designers don’t always use their products, and certainly don’t listen to suggestions from users. For example, browsers should use a striking contrast between the active tab and the inactive tabs. There’s barely a difference between them in all major browsers. It’s a very easy fix, but I have to read what’s on the tab to know which one is active. If I have more than a few tabs, there’s no readable text.


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