Seven Things I’ve Learned About Improving Design By Paying Close Attention To My Technically Incompetent But Wonderful Mother

4050s I’ve written in the past about my mom’s oddball computer and Internet habits. My mom is far from tech savvy. English isn’t even her first language and she’s only been using the personal computer for five years or so. Most importantly, my mom started using a computer in her early 50’s. She is far from the technically-inclined Internet/Email/Chat/Facebook/Myspace generation of today.

But don’t let her lack of competence fool you. There’s gold in them there hills. Here are some of my mom’s odd habits and some possible lesson’s learned:

  1. My mom likes spam. Well, let’s just say she loves seeing a large number of new items in her Inbox. I knew something’s up when she’d tell me she urgently has to check her email. Then I thought to myself: "who the hell is emailing my mother?" It turns she just likes getting email. Also, all those annoying newsletters from Overstock, Sears or Banana Republic? She likes them.
    Lesson Learned: People enjoy the feeling of being involved and connected to others – even if it isn’t what we’d view as "legitimate" activity.
  2. She doesn’t know the difference between a search box and a URL box. This one blew me away. I was walking her through some task on the phone and I asked her to put a particular URL into her browser. She kept trying to no avail. It turned out she was putting the URL into the Google search box. She makes no distinction between interface controls in applications and inside of web sites.
    Lesson Learned: Never assume that a typical user knows of or cares about the technical delineations that we’re so conscious of. Yes, an HTML form tag is a world away from the controls within the chrome of a browser application, but many people don’t know or care about that distinction. When designing, try to consciously break down the technical walls we respect so much.
  3. My mom has one login…for everything. I’ve set up most of the user accounts for my mom: desktop, email, Yahoo, Facebook and we’ve made it a point to use the same login everywhere. As a result, mom has no notion of her user accounts being stored in various places. She’s actually living the unified authentication dream we’re all seeking.
    Lesson Learned: Innovations in technology aren’t just about new processor chips and brilliant code libraries. They’re as much about creating illusions of seamlessness, elegance and downright smarts. Very often that’s as much about trickery as it is about actual technical innovation.
  4. My mom likes malware. Months ago, my mom called me laughing hysterically: "You have to come see this! Every time I play a song Scooby Doo comes out and and dances on my desktop!" As soon as I heard this, I knew that some insidious malware had made it onto my mom’s PC. As Scoopy danced, Lord knows what that software was doing underneath. Still, it was a pleasant surprise that made my mom really happy, even for a brief period of time.
    Lesson Learned: While a user’s experience shouldn’t be jarring or unpredictable, people may enjoy something unexpected if done well. I remember really loving the Easter eggs and hidden tricks in games. Another example is Google’s ever-changing logo on it’s main search page. It’s a subtle twist, but people enjoy it.
  5. She keeps every one of her contacts as a "task" on her Yahoo account. This one is bizarre. My Yahoo has a nice, full-featured personal contacts application built into it. My mom doesn’t have a single contact stored properly in Yahoo. Instead she keeps all her contacts in the Note field in the Tasks portion of Yahoo Calendar. Each contact is a "task" stored haphazardly without any sort of useful sorting or filtering. I asked my mom why she put them there instead of in Contacts. She was annoyed by the question but then explained that she tried this and it worked the first time. So she kept doing it.
    Lesson Learned: There a few lessons here. (1) Don’t assume people know what "Contacts" or "Tasks" or "Todos" means. Large swaths of computer users don’t have a clue. (2) You can win a user over with immediate feedback of some sort of success, however small. My mom immediately saw that tasks worked and so she kept using it. (3) Don’t intimidate users. The "New Task" dialog is far less complex than the "New Contact" dialog. "Less" means less pain for novices.
  6. She has never used Google. My mom is locked into the Yahoo ecosystem. Email. Messenger. She views search as search and hasn’t fallen into a particular brand loyalty. When her searches fail, she just keeps trying in the same search box. She’s not an exploratory user. Instead, she finds her groove somewhere and sticks to it. When she does lock in, she makes a big assumption: "now I have to use it right otherwise anything that may go wrong is my fault."
    Lesson Learned: When things go wrong, many users assume that they’ve done something wrong – not the tool they’re using. If "errors" occur, be wary of who you correct, and speak constructively.
  7. She inadvertantly invites me to join crappy services all the time. Rarely does a week go by without my mom inviting me into social networking sites that I would otherwise never bother with (e.g. Hi5). When I bring up these invitations, she doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, throws up her arms and declares "I have no idea what I’m doing!"
    Lesson Learned: Don’t deceive, trick or somehow coax users into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Don’t make users regret ever leaving that checkbox checked on that signup form. It doesn’t engender good things, only mistrust.

Of course, moms teach all sorts of valuable life lessons, but in their blissful ignorance of technology, they (and anyone else that isn’t skilled with computers) can inadvertently teach us a whole lot more.

So if you’re looking to improve your product experience or want to reach a broader, less savvy audience, what are you waiting for. Call your mother!

7 Comments Seven Things I’ve Learned About Improving Design By Paying Close Attention To My Technically Incompetent But Wonderful Mother

  1. Ben S

    Great post Rich. Really fun to read and has lots of good point.
    > My mom likes spam
    Ha. I had a good friend who’s 1st computer was one I gave him a few years ago. I remember him calling me and telling me about all this great mail he got..all SPAM.
    Had a good laugh (at his expense). heh.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Yeh, was very amusing :) My favourite:
    throws up her arms and declares “I have no idea what I’m doing!”
    LOL!!

    Reply
  3. Ben

    You say in 6: “She has never used Google. My mom is locked into the Yahoo ecosystem. Email. Messenger. She views search as search and hasn’t fallen into a particular brand loyalty”.
    However, in 2: “It turned out she was putting the URL into the Google search box”.
    Did you mean Yahoo! instead?

    Reply
  4. Steve

    I know someone who doesn’t use a text editor, except for the one built into Outlook Express. When he needs to print some text, he does it with Excel,
    One.
    Character.
    Per.
    Cell.
    I don’t think he’s ever used Excel to solve a numerical problem.

    Reply

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