Learning from Lusers

You know who I’m talking about. They’re the ones using their CD drive as a drink holder. They’re the ones that call technical support because their computer won’t turn on during a power failure. They’re the ones who think the appearance of a screen saver means they’re infected with a virus. They’re the clueless, the PEBKACs, the I-D-10-Ts. By very definition, they know nothing about computers. How can we, the experts on computers in general and user interface design in particular possibly learn anything from them?

They’re the edge cases, the true test of your UI design. If it passes muster with them, then it’s probably okay for the vast middle portion of the distribution of users. More educationally, the problems they experience are due to the same things that lie behind problems anyone has with interacting with technology. Lusers are not fundamentally different than the rest of us. They’re equally smart, just not as smart about technical things. But by failing so spectacularly, lusers highlight the human mechanism causing the failure in a most obvious way. Awareness of these mechanisms can help you design better UIs for all users, including those of intermediate and even expert aptitude.

This month I start a series on Learning from Lusers. Drawing from actual reports from technical support and IT professionals, we’ll be looking at the basic cause of UI design failures and see what can be done about them. No one solution will fit all cases. You need to decide for your own app what range of computer literacy you want to design for. While clever design can often cover a remarkably broad range of user abilities, for some extremes you just might not be able to handle without making unacceptable compromises to the middle range of users that constitutes the majority. And that’s okay as long as the choice is made deliberately and with the realization that lusers aren’t stupid or “undeserving” of your app. It’s just it’s not the app designed for them.

And always remember: any of us can be made to look stupid by being forced to interact with something we don’t understand. So you’re perfectly fine with handling computers. But how are you with yaks? There’s a little bit of luser in all of us.

For the full corpus of luser stories, see:

Tech Tales


The Shark Tank

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