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.
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
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.