Keeping the least proficient user in mind


Easy to use.

These are probably the most frequently spoken words in the world of UX and product design. You see them everywhere — in everyday conversations at design agencies, business requirements documents, tech blogs, marketing material for all the apps…

We want things to just work, effortlessly. We want to look at it and just know what to do without having to go through a learning curve.

They sure are very intuitive, for us. The ones who keep up with tech news, understand the difference between material design and iOS design principles, and are excited about a new phone coming out and how its new features are going to make our lives 500% better (although iPhones releases have been rather disappointing lately).

all~ the cool features of our all-new camera

But maybe not for the less tech-savvy, or the “not-tech-savvy-at-all”. You probably also have that one person in your life who, like my mother, struggles day and night with technology and could never seem to make it work. Today, I’d like to share one of many anecdotes that involve tech-supporting for the least proficient user.

Mom: “I want to watch some TV shows in English. You know, the ones that are actually interesting. Korean dramas aren’t going to help me get better at English, you know? How do I watch shows on my computer? Where do I find them?” she asked, frustrated.
Me: “Oh. It’s easy, mom. You can find them all on Netflix.”
Mom: “What flix? How do I use it? Do I have to pay?” — she was still worried.
Me: “Netflix. You can use my account so you don’t have to pay. I pay for both of us. It’s a website.”
Mom: “Ah good!! Teach me now!!”
Me: “Okay, find the little picture at the bottom rectangle of your screen that says ‘Safari’ when you move your mouse over it, then click.”
Mom: “Ok, I found it. Now what?”
Me: “You know the bar on top where you enter the address for the page?”
Mom: “Yes.”
Me: “You have to key in with your keyboard and hit enter.”
Mom: “Okay…h..t…t…p..semicolon…two slashes…” and proceeds to take all eternity to finish typing the address, “Oh geez, I’m finally done. Now what? I see a sign up box. Do I have to sign up? Or do I log in?”
I messaged her my login credentials and asked her to enter them.
Mom: “What? Now I have to type allllllll thiiiiiis in?”
Me: *facepalms*

At this precise moment, I immediately regretted not telling her the other method — which is to just enter “netflix”, press enter, and then click on the first result in the search result. It’s weird how my brain immediately went to the “most basic and preliminary” solution because she’s not tech-savvy, and not the shortcut. We associate shortcuts and flying fingers on keyboards with mastery and advanced knowledge. But maybe sometimes, we should have taught that from the start. I’m grateful to this day that my design instructor taught us to use TARO keys (text, artboard, rectangle, oval) to begin with, before even introducing all the things in the Sketch toolbar.

Mom: “Okay, I’m done. Wait, it’s telling me to remember password or not. Do I choose ok? Is it dangerous? Who’s remembering my password?….”

Knowing my mom, I am certain that she will not remember these things. So I tell her to choose ok, and it’s secure. But the questions she’s asking are not completely invalid. We are at a point where we use technology every day, but not understand the inner workings of the interface. Most of us have an idea about online security and privacy, but we still love convenience too much to really care.

Mom: “It’s telling me I entered the wrong username or password. So which one is it?”
Me: “Uh, I don’t know. Double check your spelling and make sure it matches what I texted you.”
Mom: “Oh I’m such an idiot. How could I have spelled gmail as gnail!”

She fixes the spelling and presses the button, but the page automatically corrects her right spelling to the wrong one — because of “remember my password”.

Mom: “It’s not working! It’s not moving forward!”

I pointed out to her that the page is prompting her to “remember my password” again with the “new” username with the correct spelling.

Mom: “Oh, finally. Wait, what is this?”
Me: “This is where you have to pick three shows you think you might like, so Netflix can make recommendations based on your interests.”
Mom: “But I don’t know what I like. I’ve never seen any of these.”
Me: “Just pick this, this and this then.”

Finally, she sees the “pick your profile” pop out. I tell her to click on the one that has her name on it. She was absolutely astonished at how Netflix already knew her name.

Me: “I put it there.”
Mom: “Oh how did you do that? I’m so glad that you’re so good with these things. Nevermind, I probably don’t have the energy to go through all that complicated stuff. So how do I start watching this show you told me about?”
Me: “Click on the picture, and it will start playing automatically.”
Mom: “You said it has subtitles. I don’t see subtitles! How do I open subtitles?”
Me: “Do you see that little picture of a speech bubble on the bottom right hand corner?”
Mom: “Oh! It was hidden there! Okay, you can go on with your things now. Bye!”
*A week later*
Mom: “Oh my goodness! That thing you showed me was wonderful. It keeps me watching and it remembers where I am! I really like the story…”

It’s interesting how something so obvious to me isn’t obvious to her at all. Obviously that speech bubble was clickable. Obviously you would want to click on it to see what it does, right?

But no. For her, it’s not obvious. It either evades her sight completely, or it’s a scary what-if. What if I click on it? What happens? Does something else come out? Does the screen look completely different? How do I go back? Will it tell me how to go back? How do I know what will happen once I click, before I click it? What if I get a virus? Can you fix it for me? I would need to call you again and bother you…

This signals a bigger underlying problem. To some, technology = unreliable. It’s not easy, and things keep getting stuck, keep getting hidden from me, or keep disappearing.

My mother calls me regularly to ask me how I’m doing. However, more than 50% of the time it’s questions regarding how to use her phone and/or her laptop. It keeps me thinking about the UX of the most obvious things and question existing forms.

Not everyone is as slow as my mother, and she is definitely an edge case. But perhaps, for the sake of our own improvement we can try to challenge ourselves to design for the least proficient user in mind — to make easy, intuitive, and more thoughtful products for more humans.

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