Summary: Is there such a thing as a brain-dead user? Can a human being really be this dumb? Or is it not a problem inside their head, but in ours?
There are CD mastering programs available that assume a silence of two seconds marks the end of one track and the beginning of another. Give it a subtle piece of classical music and the "feature" will turn a single symphony into a dozen or more tracks that waste the disk and break up your listening pleasure. It was made because the developer assumed its users would be too stupid to figure out how to tell the program where a track began and ended, but was that the case, or was the developer too stupid to come up with a better mechanism?
A telephony package for windows designed to be your answering machine, phone dialer, address book and all-round communications center tries to mimic a desktop telephone as visually as it can. When you want to answer an incoming call you click on a huge picture of a telephone handset. When you want to play answering machine messages you click on the "Play" button underneath a picture of a tape deck. It uses scads of desktop space and the time spent crafting the pictures of these instruments obviously ate into the time the developers could have spent making its built in address book integrate with the other tools that were mere pixel inches away. They did this because they thought their customers would be too stupid to use anything that didn't resemble what they were already familiar with, but was it more because the developers were too stupid to come up with something more intuitive, and yet more sensible than a lot of pictures that don't do anything?
It occurred to me, after looking at Lotus Organizer side by side with Just About Anything Else, that attempts to dumb down software are attempts to make the users dumb, not cater to users who are dumb. My theory is that there is no such thing as a dumb user.
I could challenge the likes of that guy who wrote that book about the Bell Curve (who needs a kick in the ass), but rather than waffle on about heredity and environment I'll put it this way: The person who used his CD-ROM tray for a retractable coffee-cup holder at was at least intelligent enough to find a new purpose for it, and the company that sold him that computer was so dumb that they didn't even put simple labels on their uniformly beige boxes.
There's a reason why toy Superman costumes now come with labels that warn "Garment does not allow wearer to fly" and it has a lot to do with the way 5 year-olds got very put out when they discover their G.I. Joe action figures don't walk and talk on their own like they did in the commercials. It also has a lot to do with the way I suffered chagrin and disappointment at the age of 6 when a breakfast oatmeal product didn't cause an orange aura to form around my body like they did for the kids on TV. The kids aren't stupid, the commercials and toy makers are.
And some people do go to a dictionary to see if the word "gullible" is listed or not, and some people do wonder if a "computer virus" can be caught by a human. It isn't because they're dumb, it's because they're smart. They're applying a limited working knowledge to the new information they've been presented, just as a human brain is supposed to do. They're also making use of trial and error and if one of their errors is an embarrassing one ("Press control, eh?") then they're all the more likely to learn from it. Like a wise man said: the rate at which one matures is directly proportional to the embarrassment one can endure (and fixing someone's fear of embarrassment could be as simple as not laughing at them when they screw up).
Software and hardware could be simplified much more than it currently is, but it could be that developers are pursuing this for the wrong reason. A rocket scientist can still benefit from a "single click" scan-and-fax program just as much as grandma could, but a developer simplifying for the wrong reason might also remove all DPI and brightness controls too -- frustrating the heck out of an industrial designer. Or the developer could be like the one who wrote the aforementioned CD mastering program - adding a feature convenient for recording Top 40 songs but ridiculous for Bach's Toccata and Fuge - and removing one's ability to switch it off because it would make the software "too complicated".
It quite possibly never occurred to developers, who are so afraid "dumb" users will open the settings and start messing around with check boxes, that a short sentence at the top of the dialog explaining "You probably won't need to alter these settings unless you are recording music with lots of subtleties, such as classical or electronica" would do more for usability than removing the options completely and bludgeoning the customer with stupid defaults.
It also possibly never occurred to developers that instead of spending hours in front of Borland Resource Editor to paint gorgeous replicas of handsets and leather binders and tape decks, they could be using that screen estate to display more information, better controls, and context sensitive help. The Warp Guide was a step in the right direction as far as this is concerned: put the help in the interface!
Better documentation, and documentation put in the right places will fix "clueless user" problems fast. It may then begin to dawn on us all that the only difference between the computer savvy and the computer stupid was who got their hands on one first.
If you've got the brainpower to move a mouse cursor over a link and click it, you can get into our easy to use interactive forums and talk about stupid things :-) Selected feedback will be posted below.
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