The Mythical User

Taking the mystery out of User-Centered Design

What a Technophobe Can Teach Us

on 9 September, 2009

“If it was easy, how would it work?”

I recently finished a usability study on the golden path of my employer’s website.   Our primary demographic is mothers, aged 25-45, who shop online.  Mostly, I test within this demo, though I like to include people from outside the target with every round of testing.

This time, I had the pleasure of testing with the mother of one of our founders.  She’s older, midwestern, and completely computer illiterate.  When I say completely, I’m not exaggerating.

And she was invaluable.

It’s important to test within your demographic.  You want to make sure that the people who are most likely to use your app or website CAN do so.  However, you should make sure to test AT LEAST your golden path on someone who’s completely unfamiliar with computers and the internet.

Why?  Because it will uncover all your assumptions.  For example, have you assumed that people know what the cancel button will do?  Have you assumed that people know how to enter their name in a form?  Have you assumed that people know how to choose a file from their computer?

You may not have to design your site to cater to a user who is that extremely novice – however, you had better THINK about the person.  It’s fine to make assumptions and draw lines, but it’s crucial that you know you’re doing it, and that you understand why.  After all, ubiquity is the holy grail of any brand – and if your app is ever going to be widely adopted you will eventually have to serve the technophobes.

Even standards (which I evangelize at every opportunity) aren’t enough if you’re designing for the whole planet.

It’s worth noting that your testing techniques may need to change for the computer-wary.  I recommend sticking to in-person methods, because if they’re illiterate already, figuring out a remote method is just going to make them uncomfortable.  Give extra reassurance, because they’ve probably never done anything like this before and they’re going to feel like a fish out of water.  And be willing to skip testing advanced features – just walk through the basics.  Advanced features are for advanced users, don’t whomp your novices with them.

One thing you’ll notice when testing with internet newbies:  when you ask them what they expect, or what they’d like, or how they’d like something to work they’ll draw a blank.  They have no experience from which to draw expectations.  Instead, I ask the question “If it was easy, how would it work?” and I get them to dream.

Test with technophobes.  They will teach you more than you can imagine, even if they aren’t the people you design for.


Today’s Glossary Term:
focus group – A method of gathering user feedback.  Gather 6-8 users in a room together, for an hour.  Have a list of questions for the users.  This method is great for learning how people talk about your product, how they feel about it, and how they interact with each other in regards to your product.  Focus groups are great for testing ideas and concepts, and not great for testing specific single interactions or detailed workflows.  Focus groups are a great way to gauge the social impact of your product idea, too!

Today’s Interesting Link:
http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/08/17/10-futuristic-user-interfaces/ – this is a fantastic mental playground, and it gets the imagination going.  Where do you think user interfaces are going this year?  The next five years?  The next fifty?  How about five hundred years from now?

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research.” – Albert Einstein

Today’s Music To Design To:
You have to be careful when you’re listening to BT, or you’ll find you’ve designed something awesome and forgotten to eat, sleep or exercise for three days. It’s that kind of music; energetic, inspirational, and melodic enough to lull you into a creative coma. I highly recommend the album ESCM, which is available on CD.
Buy the CD or
Buy some of his MP3s

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