The things we take for granted

Published Tuesday, April 24th 2007

A 3 minute read 600 words

I had one of those amazing moments as a techie last night where you get so gobsmacked by something that you think about it even a day or so later.

I was doing something on a mate's computer. Fair enough he isn't the most computer literate person in the world but he gets by - he's online and uses the web, email etc to get things done - he's even bought things online too. So he falls firmly in the "average user" category - certainly into the definition of the average use we use when we spec out systems and I'd say anyone that works at a software house or digital agency would look at Dean in the same way.

So what gobsmacked me?

The scroll wheel on his mouse... I was editing a large file for him and scrolling quickly up and down using either the scroll wheel to flick me around the document or doing that windows thing where you depress the button and flick the mouse and you start scanning the document up or down at various speeds.

Dean was sitting there amazed and just said "I had no idea you could do that". Initially I thought he was talking about the editing in the config file I was hacking but it turns out he didn't even realise there was a little wheel in there - as far as he was concerned it was a place to rest his finger and was part of the design of the mouse.

This got me thinking about all these things we as techies take for granted - not the big things like being able to get your email on your mobile phone or being able to mashup 10 different data sources to produce something new and novel or even build a website from scratch using nothing but a text editor.

I'm talking about things like people not knowing their mice can do different things, that your phone probably can browse the web as well as make calls. My wife still can't even write a text message. I come across people even now who don't have internet connections and plenty who are still on dialup.

As our industry grows, how does this moving "average user" impact on the people who are below average? Do we create a digital divide not necessarily based on the "haves and have nots" but on the basis of "cans and cannots"?

Seeing things like this has made me wonder again about people's perception and their interaction with their computing environment. I remember sitting in on a user testing session way back and seeing someone have one of those moments where they "got" the way the web worked - you could tell because she said "That's why that text has a line under it - I always wondered about that".

Anyone who's got a relli who is a timid computer user knows that they don't do things with it because they are afraid they'll break it. Trying to get them to do anything outside their comfort zone is really difficult.

With computers getting cheaper and cheaper and the next influx of users coming on board, we that build systems and interfaces must be sure to remember that the "average user" isn't getting smarter or more stupid - they will initially be less experienced and turning away these less experienced users may result in less traffic / sales whatever further down the line if someone else comes along that will hold their hand and guide them through the process.

In 10-15 years this won't be an issue - but it is now.

"The things we take for granted" by ajfisher is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

Source for citation: ajfisher.me/2007/04/24/the-things-we-take-for-granted.