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Browsers, URLs, Facebook and expectations

Browsers, URLs, Facebook and expectations

By now, many of you will have seen the ReadWriteWeb confused as Facebook saga.

It’s an object lesson in the capabilities and expectations of everyday web use. And it’s one that we who make our livings by purporting to understand people and the way they use the web and other technology ought to be both abundantly aware of and keep frequently in mind.

Most people using the web aren’t especially technically capable. They don’t understand the difference between the search box and address box on the browser they’re using (one of the smartest people I know constantly frustrates me by using the search box to go to sites and declares it “easier” as I vent). They don’t know what a URL is nor how it works. Nor do they even understand what a browser is. Let alone that the web isn’t the Internet.

I used to be very much in the “well, they just have to learn” camp. These days, I’m very much the opposite.

As experience designers (or whatever we’re called these days), it’s very much our job to design to the capabilities of the people using the things we help build. At the same time, we should seek to educate them just a little bit, incrementally building their skills through our designs.

Most people using the web are not us. It’s our job to build to their skills, needs, mental models and expectations not their job to meet ours.

For us to expect the people using the things we build to have the desire to learn technical things like URL manipulation, or that Google, Facebook, or whatever their favorite site isn’t the web itself is a pretty selfish notion. This is all actually Communications 101. We speak to and can expect understanding from those we communicate with only when we communicate with them on their terms in their language. To expect anything else is distinctly inward focussed and will not result in the best possible experience for them.

Over at his blog, UI and US, my friend Keith Lang has written yet another useful piece of thinking on this issue. I recommend you read it.

Stephen Collins
trib@acidlabs.org
5 Comments
  • Kolya
    Posted at 09:00h, 24 February Reply

    I know you are right – and that is why the iPad will be such a hit… people just want to get to their favourite sites – and icons seem to help them with that.

    I still think that there is a ‘floor’ of stupidity that needs to be set. Maybe my expectations are just higher than the norm?

  • Ricky Onsman
    Posted at 09:46h, 24 February Reply

    I agree with your description of “most people using the web”, and I think very few web professionals give credit to how low the web skills threshold is. I was seriously taken to task by a major media web manager for describing how I had seen a user in testing trying to use the Escape key as a Back button – he just wouldn’t believe it. I’m more worried about the professional’s disbelief than I am about the user’s habits.

    As you point out, how people behave on the web has little to do with how smart they are, and it’s our job to accommodate the range of user behaviour, even if it’s unexpected or doesn’t make sense to us.

    One thing to bear in mind is that “people using the web” can be broken down into the intended audiences for specific web presences. If a web professional understands their client and the client’s target audience / user group / market, there’s nothing wrong with taking the likely level of web (and other) expertise into account when designing an experience intended for them. Just be aware that, the web being what it is, people other than your intended users are likely to see it as well – which may even be an opportunity if you handle it right.

    I agree that web designers too often design websites that are terrific for web designers to use and very few other people. I think that’s partly an effect of the way we work – often physically very solitary but convinced of the breadth and depth of our perspective by our connections via the web itself.

    Way too often websites are designed, built and launched with little or no user testing, nor any review of how people use it over time. Asking for a quick pre-launch peer review via Twitter or Facebook is not only not enough – it is likely to mislead you.

  • Taryn Hicks
    Posted at 15:54h, 24 February Reply

    I’m somewhere in the middle.

    I agree that web developers should always keep things as easy to use as possible. But I also think that users should learn: but I know many are not provided with the opportunity to learn.

    I worked on a large Help Desk for many years. A lot of our users requested basic training: right-click, where the Start Menu is, what a browser is, the address bar, etc.

    Unfortunately our ICT department refused to even consider training for these people. Their justification? “People should know this basic stuff by now”.

    I suspect it’s like that in a lot of other workplaces too. There’s an assumption that people should “know this basic stuff” by now, and many people write simply resort to writing down exactly what they need to do in a notebook and completing their work that way.

  • Shane Perris
    Posted at 20:59h, 04 March Reply

    I’m a big fan of making things as easy, simple and obvious as possible for people. I think it’s good business. Even those of us who are very experienced on the web have our bad days where we’ve been up since 4am because the baby wouldn’t sleep, you’ve been fighting a cold for days, work has been one long death march for a week and you just want this one thing and why the hell isn’t it working?

    Personally, I think it’s good business to not make people think when viewing your site or using your product. Get out of the way and let the information and the viewer and/or customer get what they need. When I make things for others I always try and push this viewpoint. I’m no guru and my end result never exactly meets my own expectations, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal to aim for.

    That’s not to say everything has to be Neilsenesque picture of boring and ugly utility, but simple has its own beauty and charm 🙂

    I think I may have strayed from your original point, trib, so please forgive my vague ramblings on the topic.

  • Shane Perris
    Posted at 21:01h, 04 March Reply

    Speaking of UX and comprehension fails, I only discovered how to subscribe to comment activity _after_ I hit send. Hence, this second comment so I can keep up to date.

    Possibly operator error, but appropriate nonetheless.

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