Joe’s First Computer Encounter

The always great Lukas Mathis recently pointed to Jennifer Boriss’ blog, and it’s been a really interesting discovery. She is User Experience Designer at Mozilla Corporation and her article, User Testing in the Wild: Joe’s First Computer Encounter, was a fascinating read. It’s the account of her experience conducting a usability test with a 60-year-old man who has never used a computer.

The amount of things we tech-savvy geeks take for granted is staggering. She concludes (emphasis mine):

• There is little modern applications do to guide people who have never used a computer. Even when focusing on new users, designers tend to take for granted that users understand basic concepts such as cursors, text boxes, and buttons. And, perhaps, rightfully so – if all software could accommodate people like Joe, it would be little but instructions on how to do each new task. But, Joe was looking for a single point of help in an unfamiliar environment, and he never truly got it – not even in a Help menu

• No matter their skill level, users will try to make sense of a new situation by leveraging what they know about previous situations. Joe knew nothing about computers, so he focused on the only item he recognized: text. Icons, buttons, and interface elements Joe ignored completely

We shouldn’t assume that new users will inquisitively try and discover how new software works by clicking buttons and trying things out. Joe found using software for the first time to be frightening and only continued at my reassurance and (sometimes) insistence. If he was on his own in an internet cafe, I think he would have given up and left after a minute or so. Giving visual feedback and help if someone is lost may help people like Joe feel they’re getting somewhere

• Don’t make too many assumptions about how users will benefit from your technology – they may surprise you!

I can confirm Boriss’ words when she writes that Joe found using software for the first time to be frightening and only continued at my reassurance and (sometimes) insistence. I’ve seen it first-hand some years ago when I helped in some computer courses for novices. The general approach of first-time computer users (especially of a certain age) was in most cases overly wary. In other words, they were constantly afraid of ‘breaking something’ or doing some kind of destructive action (not literally destructive, of course; more like “what if I make a mistake and cannot revert to a previous state?” situation). 

Another thing I noticed was that some beginners raised interface-related questions that caught me a bit off guard; exactly because, as a power user who is accustomed to computers and their interface paradigms & metaphors, I was taking for granted everything on the screen. For instance, a man asked me: “If this disk [pointing at the icon representing the boot drive] contains all this stuff in these folders [pointing at the other icons on the desktop], why is each folder as big as the disk? Shouldn’t the disk be bigger than them?”. Another user found the idea of deleting a document by dragging its icon in the Trash ‘intuitive’, but then added: “So why don’t I have to drag a document icon on a Photocopier icon to make a duplicate?”. Sure, you smile, but try to be there, answering these questions, before people who are not asking rhetorical or tongue-in-cheek questions and want straight answers right away.

I should write a full account of my experience at those courses, but meanwhile here’s the moral of the story: designing interfaces is hard. Harder than you think.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!