Saturday, 20 November 2010

Real users

The other day I was reading an interesting article from the depths of the internet about 'real users', the vast majority of computer users and how they are different from the rest of us.

It was from 2003, some website developer was talking about how on his ISP's home page there was a link to a 'search' page, which had a list of links to that era's top search engines, like Yahoo, and MetaCrawler and so on, sites that have all but disappeared now. The article went on to say that when it was time to revamp the site, the developer got rid of the search page and just replaced it with a google search windowy thing or something, if people really wanted to use Yahoo, or Metacrawler they'd know the URL by now and could just type that into the address bar.

When they changed the website, there was a avalanche of complaints from customers who liked the old 'search page', and who couldn't find Yahoo anymore, it was like it had ceased to exist. The developer couldn't quite understand it, but it seemed the vast majority of people who used their ISP, had set the ISP homepage as their homepage and were otherwise completely lost if they couldn't just click through to search.

They are the real users of computers, people who don't quite understand the way it works or even think they need to understand they way it works.

In the comments people added their own stories of woe, stories of encounters with 'real users' who used computers every day, but didn't quite 'get' it.

Like people who don't use the address bar in their browser, they only ever get to things through having google as their homepage, and just entering everything there. The very existence of a URL is a mystery to them. This still happens, in 2008 the technology blogReadWriteWeb was lamenting how the vast majority or respondents in some market research don't use the address bar.

Even in February 2010 ReadWriteWeb did an article that had the words Facebook and Login in the title, magic google juice flowed and it became the top result when you search google for 'Facebook login'. People arrived at as site that wasn't Facebook and complained they couldn't login, three thousand or so people leaving comments along the lines of
Ok If I have to I will comment,I love facebook so right now just want to log in if thats ok with Keep up the good work...
They were completely lost.

I've grown up with computers and the internet, I have a little bit of a blind spot for how other people can not have the same understanding. The other day I was asked "What's the difference between Chrome and the internet?" Sure there are gentle answers to such questions, but all I could do was pat their hand and say "Don't you worry your pretty little head."

'Real users' get scared on Microsoft Word when you put on to make nonprinting characters visible. They're having problems with the layout, so you click the icon to see what's going on, and suddenly they protest, "No, I don't want that!", so you patiently click them off, and mystically explain that there's a few tabs there and a section break where it shouldn't be. The 'real user' looks at you in utter disbelief, wondering how you can possibly know such things.

There's something in that "No, I don't want that!" cry, it reminds me of the sort of thing my three year old niece would say.

'Real users' get confused when you move the icons around on their desktop, or if an icon gets obscured by some other window in front of it. If they can't see it, it has ceased to exist. Its like playing peekaboo with a six month old nephew "Where's teddy gone?", "There he is... behind the cushion that I just put in front of him."

Hmm, a six month old can figure this out, why can't 'real users'? What's wrong with them?

I kind of understand, in the early eighties, about eight hours after we first acquired an Amstrad CPC 464, I remember my brother playing 3D Monster Chase, I watched him for hours, my brain/eyes couldn't understand what was going on on screen, its seemed like some kind of coloured bowtie matching puzzle game, rather than the low-tech Doom clone game that it was. It was a few days before I could comprehend the image as a 3D scene.

'Real users' haven't had that epiphany yet, of realising that Windows are representations layers of panes that can be moved about. 'Real users' don't get that nonprinting characters are helpful and don't print.

The thing is, 'real users' can be spectacularly successful in their endeavors. Just pressing enter lots of times to get to a new page in Word doesn't seem to affect the success of their careers. Sure it may mess up the rest of the document if you need to change something on the first page, but that can be fixed easily.

If people knew about manual page breaks then documents wouldn't need to be 'fixed easily'.

The success of Windows and Vista comes down to making computers dead easy to use, so real users can get churning out poorly laid out documents quicker, without having to learn the ropes. Google's success was in getting to porn just by typing the one word then clicking, without having to remember any of that "http://www." business.

As someone who isn't a 'real user', a geek possibly, it dismay's me that rather than making 'real users' understand things and expand their mind's instead life just gets easier for them.

But no no, the vast majority of people are real-users.

In most offices, when you stand up and look around, most people you see are real users. They're working hard, getting stuff done, but they don't know what they're doing really.

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