Anatomy of a Noob -
Why your Mom Sucks at Computers

The words metaphor and intuitive are often used in UX. They are the metrics we use to judge the quality of a solution. But is this quality really as universal as we might like to believe?

Let me introduce you to my mom. (Insert random “yo’ momma” joke here)

Some years ago I needed a file from my parents’ computer sent to me. I called my mom (my dad wasn’t home) and asked her to send the file. As my mom isn’t the most avid user,  I knew I would have to guide her through the process. No biggie, I thought.

The conversation went like this:

Me: OK, so you go to the desktop and open the mail client.
Mom: I am at the desk.
Me: No, not the desk, the desktop on the computer.
Mom: Where is that?
Me: Click on the little icon on the bottom of the screen next to where it says “Start.”
Mom: Internet Explorer?
Me: No, the next one.
Mom: Which button do I push?
Me: The left one.
Mom: Nothing happens.
Me: What do you mean nothing happens?
Mom: Well, a small window pops up. Is that the desktop?
Me: No, you are right-clicking. You need to click the left button.
Mom: But I am!

We go back an forth for several minutes, with me trying to convince her that she is, in fact, pushing the right (wrong!) button. Then, suddenly:

Mom: Oops! Everything just disappeared and now there are only small  icons. What did I do wrong?
Me: No, that’s it! You did it right. That’s the desktop.
Mom: OK, but I pressed the right button.
Me: Hmm…weird. Well, anyway, open your mail clientthat’s the icon I showed you, and double-click the left button.
Mom: OK, but nothing happens. That little box pops up again.
Me: Mom, I am telling you, you are clicking the right-hand button. You need to click the left one.
Mom: But I am! It’s just really difficult.
Me: What do you mean difficult? You just double-click the left button!
Mom: I know, but this is not behaving like it used to.
Me: What do you mean?
Mom: When I go up, it goes down, and it’s really difficult to double-click with my thumbs.

(Short confusion, followed by blink of light bulb flashing on.)

Me: Ahh!

Of course, now I realized what was going on. She had the mouse upside down!

I talked to my dad later that night and found out what had happened.

Instead of the mouse cord going behind the desk and into the back of the computer, it was plugged in at the front of the desk, into the USB port on the front of the computer. The mouse had been pulled around but she didn’t intuitively get that. She thought that this was how it had been before, and that she just didn’t quite understand. Mind you, she had used a computer before.

My mom is not stupid, yet she was unable to do some of the most basic tasks in navigating a computer. She is certainly not the only one. The latest Facebook glitch (read the comments) made it painfully obvious that there are many other people who might use computers but lack the holistic insights of the digital natives.

Metaphors as a tool for intuition.

In UX we often ask ourselves whether our design is intuitive, i.e., can the user figure out how to do the things we want them to do on their own by the visual clues and design patterns we provide?

We go to great lengths to ensure easy understanding. We make the button look like something you can press. We always make sure that the navigation is prominent and follows certain nomenclature. We use desktop as a reference, windows, pull-downs, accordions, etc. We call them metaphors, but very seldom do we question whether those metaphors are as intuitive and universally understood as we assume.

In the case of my mom, there is obviously little connection between the physical desktop and its digital counterpart. To her, the metaphors we use are nothing more than words—words that get lost in the stress of trying to navigate through an environment she doesn’t really understand.

To my mom, there is no connection between the top bars in MS Word and Outlook. The convention of almost always having File – Edit – View – Help, wrap around the functionality of any given application is completely lost on her.

And my mom is not the only one. There are millions of people who can’t find their way around a computer unless they are told specifically what to do. The second they step off the well-known paths, they are, quite literally, lost. This was made rather obvious when hordes of Facebook users complained about the new log-in procedure.

I have often compared the experience of the noob with dropping a geek into the wilderness of the African savanna with the wrong map.

As non-natives, we are forced to try to follow the map and instructions we are given of this strange and unknown area. As long as the map matches the territory we are fine. But if the map is wrong, what do we do? There are no metaphors from the urban jungle that we can take and apply. The map doesn’t prepare us for what we meet on our way.

The environment is completely alien and we fail to navigate it intuitively.  Not because we are stupid, mind you. We simply lack the experience of a native.

What separates digital natives from non-natives is that the former understand computers holistically. Whatever the digital natives encounter, they can typically quickly figure out what to do by nature of having a better understanding of the environment.

Noobs in the digital space don’t understand things holistically. They barely understand the basics. They lack any cognitive surplus to provide themselves with an overview of the environment they interact with.

Which brings me to three observations:

Intuition is learned.
Something is intuitive not because it’s universally understood but because we have learned the meaning of it from a holistic point of view. This requires lots and lots of experience and, for that matter, trial and error.

Metaphors are only meaningful in retrospect.
Don’t count on the physical-looking button to be intuitive just because it’s a metaphor from real life. Once you tell someone what a specific element means, they will most probably understand it, but not because of the metaphor itself.

There are no Bablefish in UX
Designing products and services is like speaking French. Not everyone understands it. Comprenez-vous? The noob might pick up a word here and there, but they aren’t, by any metrics, comfortable with participating in the conversation.

This all leads to the following conclusion:

Intuitive interaction is for experts, not for noobs
Understanding something intuitively really means that you understand it holistically. If you understand it holistically, you can fill in the gaps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your design intuitive or improve on it—not at all. Just understand that you are doing it for the natives, not for the noobs.

So let’s stop obsessing over whether something is intuitive and start obsessing over whether it’s understandable. That is going to be the topic of my next post.

Let me know what you think.

Note #1: As always HackerNews has some great comments with regards to my article.


  • Modaff

    Maybe a good testing process would be to have a non-native try and navigate whatever it may be you are testing, if u are going for compatibility with the whole population, not just the tech-savy

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  • Anonymous

    Haha, that’s quite fun. My Mom can drive me crazy too:)

  • Anonymous

    Its all have to do with the past generation and the things that have come up in the last few years.

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    Nice Story, you should teach your mom how to use computer keyboard and mouse.

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    Hmm, it’s interesting to read conversation of your with your mom. This is true that there are several one who have used computer many time but still not having proper basic knowledge. It is not that they have not brain but instead they just use it according to their requirement.

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    Was your mom raped by an iphone or something? I don’t like the iphone either, but c’mon pal, give it up. This is stupid. We all know the iPhone 4 is old.

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    Its all have to do with the past generation and the things that have come up in the last few years. The older generation is different as they weren’t used to computers around them. So we cannot expect our moms to be a pro in it. Even my mom can barely open the browser and close it, but its no big deal. Who knows, in the coming 10-20 years, a new gizmo or a thing would be invented and the current generation might suck at that. But a very good article indeed.

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    Absolutely wonderful tool for dad and mom. Sucks hard for kids. … slick stuff designed to keep you glued to your computer for nine frickin’ hours a day. …

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    Security features alone usually render your home computer useless for work except maybe email access. A good majority of us have our work computer

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    Yeah I know I've been in an almost Identical situation with my dad.

  • Jacob Winther Johansen

    Talk to any Customer Service clerks if they recognize that problem of guiding people through the phone blindly. I was so surprised of the amount of people who use the google search bar instead of typing in the web address line. It seemed like short-cuts on the keyboard was the way around that issue – could we learn anything from that? Simplicity? However, when the computers are going to be all touch screen, then that solution is eradicated and the UX people need to step it up once again.

  • http://www.000fff.org Thomas Petersen

    The problem isn’t really about one or two buttons but about the mouse itself.

    Mind you the problem was that she had it upside down, not that she couldn’t tell the difference between left and right.

    So yes the one button mouse would have solved the left right issue, but she would still have had it upside down.

  • http://twitter.com/rmetzler Richard Metzler

    What? Nobody brought up the old “Mac computers have only one mouse button” argument yet?
    Even if you hold the mouse the wrong way, there wouldn't be a chance to open the context menu by accident. I find that limitation is a great tool to enhance user experience.

    And yes: I'm aware that even the Magic Mouse can do a Right-Click. But I wouldn't enable that for my parents.

  • http://000fff.org Thomas Petersen

    I am not saying intuitive interaction should be designed for experts only. What I am saying is that you can't use the same intuitive design patterns and metaphors for noobs.

  • http://twitter.com/daniel_ux Daniel Serrano

    Good introductory anecdote that reminds me of one of my own, telling someone over the phone to “close a window” and “get out” (of an application), followed by the sound of a physical window being closed and my listener leaving. I think these examples highlight the different knowledge that all users have and that we have to be aware of in designing tech.

    Because of this role that knowledge plays, I do not agree with that interactions that enable intuitive engagement should be designed for experts only, newbies could also approach the interaction with all or parts of the required knowledge. They could've acquired it in another context, or another system- or another life? :)

    Although I believe that enabling intuitive interactions should be overall goals for design, I think it is more about contexts that are more appropriate for them: self-serve applications such as ATM or self check-in kiosks.

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    Find telling them to press the windows button + d is the easiest way to get them to the desktop

    I installed logmein onto their computer and just remote desktop whenever they need help

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  • Thomas Petersen

    Computers are not just tools. Some of the applications that run on computers are tools, but the computer itself is a platform. A platform from where all sorts of things can be created form games, to art to tools, to services, to music and so on.

  • Chui

    A bit more gratitude would be in order here. She's spent more hours ironing than with a mouse. The cord on the iron was perfectly fine running behind the iron.

  • celo

    Dude. I don't mean to troll, but… Computers are tools. People that don't know how to use tools are a completely different problem. We design interfaces to make computers effective tools, not to eradicate ignorance. Some of the principles of Ix Design are based on catering to human instincts and expected responses. Your user needs to have a minimum amount of understanding of the tool. For example, I maybe an ignorant on cooking utensils, or sewing equipment, or penmanship (or any other skills that your mother may be well versed in, and I don't mean to belittle her skills in any way). I would do a poor job at any of those. Your mom would not. Tools require learning, practice, and some degree of internalization. Don't underestimate your mom, or your users for that matter. Interfaces should be designed for human beings, not stupid users.

  • http://www.facebook.com/postnick Nick Post

    I have had that same chat with my mom. The problem is they do not wish to learn. I quickly learned to install team viewer and remote desktop so I can just do it my self.

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    Grab someone from a “primitive” tribe. Put him a dark room near the doorway. Now ask him to turn on the lights. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But what does “turn on” mean? And where do the “lights” come from? Do we mean the Sun? Would he think of a switch? A lightswitch? Would he necessarily think a switch would be near the doorway? Where would he press on a switch if we showed a switch to him? Does “toggle” even exist in Nature? And would he be confused if he encountered a switch without a toggle? I recently read “What the Dormouse Said,” about the early days of popular computing. Doug Engelbart was proud of how many things someone would have to learn in order to use his “user-friendly” system. Don't be like Engelbart was.

  • http://twitter.com/idrawboxes Chris Sainsbury

    My dad still doesn't understand the word 'interface' in the context of computing – to him what he sees on the screen IS the computer. He doesn't understand why it would be called an interface – what is it interfacing to?

    I find it self-centred, elitist and condescending to say 'why bother with noobs' or 'I prefer to design for myself' – the logical conclusion of that kind of thinking is a society where we don't have buildings accessible for disabled people or don't make products as easy to use as possible. It is our responsibility as designers to make our products as understandable as possible.

  • http://cl.o.se thruflo

    I guess the challenge (for post 2!) is addressing how to make things for “noobs” that aren't broken as a result.

    Certainly, there is a learning pathway in most things from “entry level” to “expert tools”. For example, a programmer might start using :routes to map urls to handler code before moving on to mapping via regular expressions. The former being simple but ultimately limited, the latter initially incomprehensible but much more powerful.

    The holy grail is presumably 'unobtrusive' understandability, e.g.: page elements that contribute to understandability without getting in the way of usability. But then, of course everything on the page gets in the way / occupies some visual hierarchy, which is precisely why the subtler arts of intution and metaphor are deployed.

    One pattern is to provide help context (e.g.: helpful 'tip' messages) the first time / few times something is used. Perhaps another is to provide a default and 'advanced' modes, which the user explicitly activates to get rid of the 'helper' gunk once they've learned how to use something.

    Personally, I find designing for myself to be infinitely more rewarding ;)

  • http://000fff.org Thomas Petersen

    There will be a second article :)

  • http://000fff.org Thomas Petersen

    @thruflo of course that's an option. But the competition in that space is fierce and the potential in the noob space is still largly untapped.

    The Tablet (iPad etc) is one example of tapping into the noob market.

  • http://twitter.com/trevRAWR Trevor Harmon

    The biggest question I have at the end of this article is “Well what is understandable, then?”

    In my mind, it initially seems that understandable =

  • youngluck

    Get a Mac.

  • http://thruflo.github.com thruflo

    An alternative conclusion might be “let's stop obsessing over noobs”.

    As http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/05… points out, we all have a choice over which audience we target and targeting the digital natives is in some cases the better approach.