“What’s a Browser?” – Remembering the Non-Tech-Savvy User

“You work with computers, don’t you?”

That simple, innocent-enough question — when asked by a family member or friend — gives no hint about the trouble about to rain upon your head. You just know you’re going to spend the next few hours battling to get their computer to work. I was asked that question twice last week on a vacation to see family, and on both occasions I was able to help — and gain an insight into users and their behavior.

Booting? Safe Mode? What are those?

The first problem was malware installed on a PC that was causing two behaviors: either it would display a black screen with a white arrow cursor that would not move, or the computer would appear to be working but within a few minutes it would give a Blue Screen of Death.

Luckily there was enough information given before the Blue Screen to identify the malware, and after a quick search I found the steps needed to remove it. A few hours and several reboots later, the PC was working again.

The owner of the PC hovered nearby to see what I was doing, but they had a blank expression on their face when I told them I was booting in Safe Mode: they did not understand what I meant by “booting” or what “Safe Mode” was. I may as well have been speaking Mandarin.

Search-Engine-Based Navigation?

The second request for help was from someone whose computer was “running slow,” and they couldn’t use Facebook, as it would not scroll. An old computer running XP and IE8 proved to be a bad combination with IE waiting for a resource to load which led to the page being unresponsive.

This fix was easy: switch to Chrome (remove 5 different search toolbars!) and voila, baby and cat photos and Bubble Safari all working as intended.

The harder part was explaining what I did — using the word “browser” got the same blank look as as when I talked about Safe Mode to the other user. She also wanted to know what I was doing when I showed her that it was working. Typing ‘facebook.com’ into the address bar seemed to be the source of confusion. I got her to show me how she used the computer; she got into Facebook by typing Facebook into Bing and clicking on the search result. I had heard of people doing this, but this was my first encounter with someone who actually did it.

Lessons Learned

It’s easy to get caught in a bubble — working with people who are very comfortable with computers and the tech behind them, surfing Hacker News and reading about the latest hi-tech advancements as your 3D Printer prints a new gadget. You can forget there are a whole set of people out there for whom all of this is a strange, mysterious world that they struggle to understand.

What words do you use when talking to users or potential users? Do you use your jargon or words they are familiar with? What about your app — do the manuals, dialogs, error messages use wording that will cause the user to get that same blank or puzzled expression on their faces that I saw?

  • John Rumery says:

    Great post. The overuse of jargon is in every sector; finance, legal, technology, arts, sciences, hospitality. I write for Rapid Growth Media and constantly need to “de-jargonize” interviews and press releases. The challenge is not to ‘dumb-done’ the conversation. The most interesting people I speak with (and learn from) are experts who are able to make complex ideas understandable.

  • Laura Vaughn says:

    A quote from a customer last week when I asked what URL she was going to: “I don’t URL.”

    A good reminder to explain things in English sometimes!

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