The myth of the stupid user

- Gerry Gaffney

THE “myth of the stupid users” is common within large sections of the software and web development communities. This might seem a relatively harmless belief, but it has a significant effect on the quality of Internet sites, on the extent to which sites can be used by their intended audience, and on the extent to which sites meet business and marketing requirements.

Although it is clearly unacceptable to erect intellectual barriers at the door of a shop, it is apparently OK to do so at the entrance to an Internet site (“Click here for non-Flash version”, “You must upgrade your browser to use this site”, “Set your screen to 800×600 for optimal viewing”). I don’t require a map of a supermarket to successfully complete my grocery shopping, nor am I considered foolish if I am unable to locate the toothpaste.

During usability testing, representative users from the intended audience are asked to complete typical tasks (in an online bookstore, for example, users would be asked to locate books by title, author, subject, publisher or ISBN and to complete a purchase).

It is common to have developers observe such tests. They will often comment after the first session on the stupidity of the particular user. When the second and third users are equally “stupid”, a fundamental question arises – if representatives of the intended audience cannot use the site effectively, where does the blame lie?

It seems obvious that users are not to blame. No matter how poorly they perform in using the site, logic dictates that if they cannot use a site designed for them, the fault therefore lies in the design. The only solution is to redesign the site, since the audience cannot be modified.

However, the majority of sites are developed and launched without any customer-centred activities and without any usability testing. In effect, usability testing takes place in the field, once the site is launched.

The result is very often that sites are rejected at the time when acceptance is most critical – in the marketplace.

Over the years, so-called “novice” computer users have been conditioned to accept the blame for their inability to use products. A common comment from users during usability testing is, “I’m so stupid, I just can’t do this”.

When software was expensive and choices were limited, many people struggled through their own “stupidity” to master these products, simply because they had little choice.

On the Internet, the situation is different, because users are generally not obliged to use a resource. After all, there are probably dozens of other sites providing similar products and services. Alternatively, the Internet may be an additional channel that an organisation (such as a bank) is trying to get people to use in order to save costs. In either case, it is easy for a user to exercise the option not to use it.

As many organisations have discovered, most people are not prepared to jump through hoops to complete complicated registration procedures, or to search through disorganised masses of advertising materials to find a product to purchase.

And while the development team may try to convince themselves that it is because the users are too stupid, the real reason is that the design has centred on technical constraints and looking cool, at the expense of what works for real people.

Most people are not interested in how technically sophisticated a site is. It is immaterial how many person-days of development time were involved, how many hurdles had to be overcome, and how pleased everyone in the company is with the new design. The shopper doesn’t care if the department store was built on a swamp, so why should they care how a website is built?

The time for pretending that you can concentrate your design efforts on the technically sophisticated is gone.

However, it may well be that only the technically sophisticated can use any organisation’s new site, unless some simple procedures are followed – understand the users, adopt a customer-centred design approach and test the site with real people before launching.

And if you insist on believing the myth of the stupidity of users, then design sites that stupid people can use.

Notes: This article first appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. You may also be
interested in John Rhodes’ interview of the author.