Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Most folks "in the industry" have a slightly off-target view of who the average computer user is. After 4 years of Ask Leo!, I've formed an opinion.
Over the course of the last four years of doing Ask Leo! I've also learned a lot about computer and technology myself. The old adage about learning something by teaching it is very, very true.
But I've also learned a thing or two about you, the people trying to use computers, too.
And these are things I wish a lot more people would realize and understand. People from the executives at my former employer, to some of the people that comment on my answers.
The "average computer user" is not who you think.
Those of us "in the industry" are frequently afflicted with a kind of myopia or tunnel vision. We often see things the way we want them to be, or use some preconception of the way we think they are, rather than actually looking at the way things really are.
Like the people that use our products.
And, I must admit to being guilty myself. My perception of the average computer user has changed dramatically over the last four years.
The biggest, single revelation? Most people don't want to know how things work or why things work, they just want them to work. Simple as that. The average user isn't interested in their computer. It's not a toy, it's a tool. This makes education an interesting challenge, since much of what you'd ideally like people to learn is why something behaves the way that it does, so that the "why" can be generalized to other situations.
Second revelation: because of the first, people are not nearly as technically savvy as we might want them to be, or as we might believe. I'm not trying to be judgmental here, it's an observation built over the experience of the last few years. People who are searching for assistance on the web are frequently those least able to comprehend and execute the majority of answers that they find.
My first questions on Ask Leo! were primarily those from friends, and hence a little more technical than others. It didn't take long, though, for my sense of what needed to be answered to shift to the more basic and fundamental. I now try to provide a variety, but it's still driven primarily by the volume of questions that are submitted to the site.
I try to make the answers and my recommendations accessible to that average user. It's not always easy, since the products we're dealing with here aren't always designed with that average user in mind. And I do frequently hear that I'm too technical, and that I'm not technical enough. It's not an easy line to walk.
For example, if a Windows product requires the average user to ever fire up the registry editor to resolve an issue, that product has failed to meet the needs of the average user. Many programs, including Windows itself, fall into this category.
Similarly, if hand-editing settings in a text file is required to configure an application or make a change, then that application has similarly failed to meet the needs of the average user. Most Linux distributions fall into this category repeatedly, though some are getting better.
I frequently get comments on articles here that boil down to "I don't see the problem - my mother / grandmother / toddler can do this without any issues whatsoever". If that's the case, then your mother, grandmother or toddler is decidedly not an average computer user. I'm happy for them, since they clearly have a leg up on things and that will serve them well, but to generalize their experience to the rest of the populace is, I'm finding, a very big mistake.
They are the exceptions, not the rule.
I don't want to make light of this; I know it's hard - damned hard in fact - to make software accessible to the masses. But that's exactly what we expect of today's vendors.
In fact, it's exactly what they claim they do.
Except that over and over again, they don't.
The average computer user is ultimately exactly right and justified in their position. Things should just work. Things shouldn't be as hard as they often are, and explanations shouldn't assume a level of knowledge or interest that simply isn't there.
But that's not where things stand.
So to all of "us" in the industry: take some time to really consider whether or not you have a clear picture of what I keep calling the average computer user. I'll bet you don't, and some of your customers are suffering because of it.
And to those average computer users all I can say is "hang in there". Despite frequent evidence to the contrary the industry is trying. In the mean time and in a more practical vein, the more you can bring yourself to take an interest and learn perhaps a little more than you want to, the better off you'll be.
But that need is our mistake, not yours.
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