This 6-year old article examines the problem of web designers taking too much for granted. Unfortunately, much of it still holds true. [First published November 2001. I have included some updates.]
Web designers have been involved with the Internet for a long time, at least in Internet years. We begin to take the users for granted and expect them to know all the tricks of surfing Web pages.
I work with many 40+ year olds who have just bought their first computer. These people own businesses, make decisions, and have some money to spend. Among other things I teach them how to use the Web. They all want to do this very early on. I think there are large numbers of people in this category. They give me fresh insights every day into how confusing the Web is — stuff we take for granted is actually very obscure and confusing for beginners.
My client, a 55-year-old retired interior designer looked at me and said: “What do I do now?” She had just finished entering information into an online form and the “Submit” button was staring her in the face. The problem was, that “Submit” had no meaning for her.
I work with a lot of people in their 40s and 50s (and above). I train them to use their computers. For many it’s their first ever experience with a computer. They bring it home from the shop, plug it in and go on to the Web.
New Users already “know” a lot
These users know a lot about a vast range of real-world subjects. They have owned and operated businesses and companies or government departments — many still do. They have money to spend and they make decisions. They have often had secretaries in the past to deal with the computer. Now, however, they are on their own.
They have heard lots of stories about the Web. They “know” that viruses and pornography are on the Internet. They “know” that the Internet equals the Web. They know that you can go shopping online and they know that credit card numbers can be stolen.
New Users are scared
Those new to the Web and to computers are scared: Scared of viruses. Scared of pressing the wrong thing. Scared that pornography will “happen” on their machine. Scared that their credit card will suddenly show charges because they’ve accidentally bought something.
When people are new to something common sense often flies out the window — the brain is fully occupied processing the new information. And when they are new to these magical and powerful devices called computers they will happily suspend all disbelief. Of course charges can appear by magic on your credit card just because you looked at a Web page, just because you viewed an item at a shopping site.
New users don’t yet know how it all works. They are mystified that there is a difference between an ISP and Yahoo. They don’t know how information is passed around or how the money works or who charges them for what they are doing or how.
Computers are a whole new world
They don’t know the ways or the terminology of computers or the Internet.
My client, who would have known to post or fax a form or hand it in at a counter in real life had no idea that the word “Submit” was a button, that you need to click on a button and absolutely no idea that the word “Submit” actually meant “Send Information”. When I pointed it out she said, “Well, I wouldn’t have guessed that!”
[Update February 2008: this sounds incredible, and you may want to suggest my client was just ‘dumb’, but she wasn’t dumb, and this is a true story. Rather than ‘blame and shame’ I’d hope we can learn from it.]
We need to avoid these terms from the “inner circle” if we want our pages to succeed with all users. Instead of “Submit” we could use “Send Information” or “Send Details”.
“Download” doesn’t mean much if you’re new to computers. How about a friendly, short note somewhere obvious that says something like: if you want this software or document on your own computer you’ll need to click on the download button?
We need to explain a whole lot more and take a lot less for granted.
We expect too much
As Web designers we expend a lot of energy on making our Websites user-friendly, but we can’t help but take too much for granted — we are just too familiar with Websites.
We’re also too familiar with computers. We assume that users can tell that a window exists and so we cheerfully open a pop-up window and even provide a “close” button. I watch my new-user clients get totally bewildered when we encounter one of these pop-ups.
Even worse is when we use a model from one kind of operating system — such as providing an “x” in the top right corner to close a window. I know that it means nothing to Mac users in general, and it definitely doesn’t convey anything to my new-user clients.
“Close this window” would help more than just the word “close” and it would help a great deal more than an icon, wherever it’s placed.
Symbols don’t always mean anything
One client of mine runs her own art gallery and has had her computer just a few weeks. She was interested in watching videos of recent news stories and had found a page from a leading news source offering video clips. When she clicked on one video link a window appeared, something downloaded and then nothing happened.
Well, actually, I’m not sure what she clicked on. The rather subtle icons of a speaker and a film camera (clear to me and absolutely meaningless to her) didn’t tell her whether she was clicking on video or audio. In any case, both required Real Player, which she didn’t have on her machine.
The news Website can’t expect everyone to understand that a speaker icon (if people can even recognise it) “means” sound and that a camera icon “means” video. Sure it conveys those messages to those of us steeped in the idiom, but to the millions of people every year who are buying their first ever computer it doesn’t (yet) mean anything.
How about some sub-headings with the words Video and Audio, to go along with the icons? The actual links to video or audio could then be grouped under the appropriate heading.
Tell people what to expect
I explained to my client the need for additional free software and pointed her to Real.com where I guided her through the maze to the free player download area. On the way we dealt with several extremely confusing (to her) pop-up windows. After she filled in a form I was finally able to see that it was a 6Mb file and I suggested she stop there. That was going to be a half-hour or more download.
If I hadn’t been there and if, by some miracle, she’d managed to navigate the Website and fill in the form, she wouldn’t have known that a 6Mb download was about to happen or that it would take half an hour or more on her dial-up connection. And even then I can’t imagine she would have known how to install the software.
[Update February 2008: this same client, amazingly enough, still has the same computer and the same dial-up connection, in spite of much encouragement to ‘keep up with the times’. There are many reasons why no change has taken place.]
If we’re offering downloads, or time-consuming content we need to let our users know what they’re in for. Give a file size and a download time estimate up-front before the users get tangled up in filling forms and the like.
Be outward looking
OK, I confess, I live in New Zealand … it’s a bit to the right of Australia and somewhat higher up than Antarctica. Our entire population is a shade short of 4 million. [February 2008: now 4.25 million.] We’re a highly Internet literate population though — nearly 2 million of us use the Internet [2008: more than 3 million].
And, in common with many others around the world, we write our dates in the day / month / year format. As a country we’re way too small to have States (even if our po
litical system worked like that) and I believe we do actually have postcodes but I only know of about 3 people who have any idea what their postcode is.
My new users get stumped by forms which require a state or a zip code. That’s one sale lost in the battle to sell goods online. Some of us are knowledgeable enough to subvert the form — 90210 is a handy zip code.
And if you write a date as 9/11/01 it can be really hard to tell if that’s 11 September or 9 November. There’s a lot of guessing that goes on.
Like it or not, the Web is international. We Kiwis (as New Zealanders are called) visit pages from all around the world. People from all around the world visit pages from all around the world. Make sure you build in tolerance to your Web pages and don’t force others to fit into your cultural model. Write dates with the month in words, create forms where zip codes and the like are optional or where it’s possible to enter Doesn’t Apply.
It’s a bell-curve world
The NUA suggests [link now dead] that as of August 2001 over 513 million people are online worldwide. In February 2008 that number is 1.08 billion.
Many of those people are just starting out with their first-ever computer, while others know their way around to some extent and still others are power-users.
I know for a fact that many of the beginners I work with are decision-makers of importance and that many have spending money at their disposal. They are knowledgeable and clever people in their regular lives, but when it comes to computers and the Internet they are confused, scared and ignorant.
And as fast as they learn the new skills of this information age others will come along and be the unlearned beginners.
As Web designers we can make small changes to help out these users — we can be cautious with our use of icons, we can use clearer text, we can think internationally, we can let people know what to expect when they’re about to enter into the process of obtaining files.
These are a few small techniques which can make the difference between a regular Website and one with the gloss of excellence.
First published in Digital Web magazine in November 2001 and republished with permission. This article may have been modified from the original.