Average Users

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “average user”. Who are they? What do they use their computer for? What do they know? And – I think this is the most interesting question: How much do they care about the things we [programmers] spend all our time on?

I recently wrote a paper about Microsoft’s latest Vista operating system. Why did people hate it so much? Why was take-up so low? How much of this was due to usability? I found there were usability issues, but there were also improvements in usability. By the end of the three months I spent intermittently reading and writing about this, I’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much a usability issue; more of an absence of a great leap forward.

When I presented this paper in class, we talked a lot about the average user. Do they know what the operating system does? Crucially – do they care? We think of the operating system as many things, but the most important thing to us is probably the kernel. Our average user is probably more concerned with the graphical user interface and file organization. Our perception is so dramatically different… it will take a lot of work to bridge the gap.

During my undergraduate degree, a guy in my class once held up MySpace as a reason why regular people shouldn’t be allowed to design webpages. I disagree with this. No doubt there are horrendous looking web pages out there, but the internet is a meritocracy. Badly designed pages with poor content will get few hits. The most popular designed web pages are well designed and functional. Even Facebook. Isn’t this the power of web 2.0? The computer is now not just a communication tool but an interaction tool. Maybe that’s why our average user loves it.

I don’t think the computer revolution is over, but it will take progressively more to impress users. Their expectations are higher, but they are not programmers; they do not have any understanding of what goes into the applications they now spend an ever-increasing amount of their time using. If we are artists, they do not understand our artistic process. If we are engineers, we may need to accept that people expect a working system as a minimum, and are not tolerant of failure. Whatever, we need to know who our average user is. Perhaps that is where Microsoft went wrong with Vista.

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