Idiot users? Nope. Just unfair expectations.

February 2, 2007

Mr. Angry over at Angry 365 Days a Year wrote a post titled Idiot users and how to deal with them. I think he starts off in a good way but I’d like to add a few comments to his overall message.

Whenever you encounter an “idiot” user, think about this. What if you were asked to drive a forklift? What if you were asked to replace the spark plugs in your car (are there even spark plugs in a car)? What if you were asked to field strip a M-16?

I had an experience as a kid that sticks with me to this day. I was staying with a great uncle of mine and was hanging out downstairs. He had a fireplace and at some point the fire died down to basically nothing. I didn’t even notice it – I was probably playing with legos or something. Anyway, at one point he comes downstairs and exclaims “You let the fire go out!? Boy how you been raised?” I’d never started a fire in my life much less understood that it was expected that I should keep it going in someone else’s house. But from his point of view I was stupid for not realizing what was a basic, fundamental part of life. Me on the other hand, I was upset that his opinion of me was now colored by what was really an unfair expectation/assumption on his part.

The point is, there are plenty of things we don’t know. And it’s not because we’re stupid, it’s just because we haven’t been exposed to them. Or maybe we’ve been exposed to them at a very superficial level, but we don’t interact with them with enough regularity to be comfortable. This is how many “idiot” users are with computers. It’s not that they’re stupid, they just aren’t as comfortable with computers.

And it’s more than just knowing enough about browsers to know that “Google” isn’t the “Internet” (it’s just the page that shows up by default Dad). It’s a very fundamental difference in language. Have you ever used the term GUI to a non-technical user? While they’re sitting there politely nodding their head they’re thinking “uh, why did this guy just refer to his program as having a rich GOOEY AJAX (when did cleaning products enter into the picture) driven interface?” And how about the term “interface”? To us, this is a no-brainer. It’s so common that everyone should understand it. But you know what, when you look at the definition for the word interface, our version is number 6 on the list.

So cut those “idiot” users some slack. Try and remember that they are probably very far out of their element and their comfort zone. Try and remember what it feels like to be out of your comfort zone and having someone judge you based on their standards – not yours. Try and remember that while they might not get computers, they are probably extremely good at something you suck at.

Edited 2/4/07 – added Mr. Angry’s name and link.

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4 Responses to “Idiot users? Nope. Just unfair expectations.”

  1. Mr Angry Says:

    I hope the fullness of the article did show I was cutting users some slack – even if I was having a laugh at their expense. Also, a point about your analogies which are quite good – they actually identify the users I think really are idiots. I’m not expecting them to be able to field strip an M16 but THEY think they should be able to and they blame me for their inability.

    Even with the really annoying ones, in real life I try to help them rather than mock them. Oh, and so far as my name goes, I publish anonymously – just call me Mr Angry.

  2. glenc Says:

    Yes I think it did and we’ve all encountered those users where we have to – like you said – go take a break for a while to keep from saying something you’ll regret.

    I read your post, liked it, and wanted to add a little more from the empathy/role reversal angle.

  3. Jeff Staddon Says:

    I believe the root “problem” is that in a growing number of human fields of work the normal course of “change” includes an ever growing percentage of technology. Very few people outside of IT have enough knowledge of technology to be able to (correctly) envision what/where technological components can/should be created/deployed. The result is poorly handled change management. (That is becoming progressively worse.)

    It is critical to the future of business in this nation (and the world) for non-geeks to learn enough about technology to be able to correctly envision where technological components fit within the broader context of their work areas. . . and a wake-up call to us geeks on our responsibility to teach the non-technical world how to appropriately apply technology.

  4. John Says:

    It’s not ignorance that annoys people, it’s denial.

    For example, if you asked me to field strip an M-16 I’d tell you that I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do. That’s because I’m ignorant of what “field strip” means (I could guess, but I still wouldn’t know how to do it).

    Imagine though, that I said “yeah, sure… I’ll field strip the M-16. No problem. I’m really good with M-16s.” A little while later, having turned three bystanders to corpses, and having shot myself in the foot, I’d explain what went wrong. “Look, I’m really good at field stripping, and I’ve worked with heaps of M-16s before, and basically I’m just totally friggin’ awesome at everything I do… it’s just that it turned out that some stupid person left that particular M-16 loaded.”

    That’s the problem with “stupid users”. They either don’t know or won’t admit their ignorance. They blame others, they think they’re awesome, and they have no idea what they’re doing. You can usually spot the “stupid users”, because they run around calling other people “stupid”.


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