The Myth of the Average User: Your Mom Knows How to Click and Drag

If there’s feedback a designer dreads more than Make the logo bigger, it’s My grandmother wouldn’t understand that. The correct response, of course, is Really? Let’s put her in the usability lab and see. Because for all that your CEO loves his grandma he’s probably insulting her intelligence.

It’s the myth of the Average User. At Yahoo! we called them Chief Household Officers (an unfortunate warping of a legitimately identified market segment). Maybe you call them Stay-at-Home Moms or Women 30–45 — somehow they’re always female. They’re a catch-all excuse for dumbing down products. We try to get them in the lab but they end up being smarter and more interesting than we wanted. In fact, we’ve never met an Average User.

Perhaps the stereotype is born of helping friends and family with technology problems; or waiting in line behind someone at the ATM; or watching the antics of a fellow cafe customer with fascinated horror. A lot of people are really bad at basic computer tasks. Many don’t fully understand their filesystems, or the difference between an OS and a Web browser.

But that doesn’t mean they’re dumb, or inept. It means they’ve figured technology out on their own, skipping over many of the underpinnings because they weren’t relevant. They’ve spent hours on Facebook and Google and know their way around, but haven’t had to interact directly with their home directories.

The result is a specific, somewhat predictable set of expectations. Show a user something that acts like Facebook or Google and she’s likely to figure it out. Show her something that looks like Facebook but acts some other way and she’ll struggle. Talk to her about friends or newsfeeds or Googling and she’ll get it. Talk about RAM and browser windows and WebKit and not only won’t she get it, she may not care.

Why bother pointing this out? Because it affects the success of your product. Design for the mythical Average User and you’ll have something that’s neither compelling nor efficient to use. At worst it’ll be insulting. At best it’ll limit your chances of success: not only are you designing for people who don’t exist, you’re also creating an environment where it’s easy to justify uninteresting functionality and bland visual design.

Instead, design for real people. Even if your product is meant for everyone, find a more interesting subset with clearly identified needs. Understand their expectations for how a digital product works and capitalize on them. Keep it focused. And respect your users enough to differentiate between experience and intelligence.

I often use Dropbox as an example here. Everyone I work with uses it (technical and non-technical alike). It’s simple to understand and easy to get started. It just works. It explains itself in layman’s terms, but isn’t insulting. Its feature set is small and focused, but it functions flexibly enough for power users to work around its apparent limitations (e.g. using symlinks to work outside the Dropbox folder). It solves one problem and solves it well.

Remember that novice users, once hooked, become power users and need efficiency. Conversely, novices aren’t necessarily your first customer. If your target user isn’t technologically adventurous, the way to his heart is through those who influence him. For example, Gmail’s global rise was fueled in part by tech geeks who eventually convinced friends and family to switch. Facebook started on college campuses and expanded from there.

The next time an absent relative is invoked to justify a decision, challenge it. Get the relative on the line, find a real person to serve as a replacement, turn to the data…whatever it takes to make sure you’re designing for real people. Because mythical users can only generate mythical revenue.

Originally published at on August 11, 2011.

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