Three things I learned from 20 minutes of watching my in-laws operate a web browser

  1. The browser’s address bar does not exist. If you’ve spent any time looking at common search terms, you know that people will type “cnn.com” into Google rather than saving a step and typing it into the address bar. For many people the address bar is invisible. And when instructed to type something into it, they (a) they don’t know what it does and (b) don’t know how it works (they will type in spaces and punctuation). This gives me slightly more appreciation for SEO: you’d better be sure your site comes up when its URL and close variations are searched for.
  2. Browsers have several toolbars occupying much of the screen. All web developers know to test in multiple browsers, screen resolutions and operating systems. But how many also test with two or three toolbars installed? This is especially important if you have clients who insist on certain elements being “above the fold.” And who can blame users for having needless toolbars, when something as innocuous as a Flash or Acrobat update will also install a toolbar? Most users don’t know how to get rid of them.
  3. Computers are usually operated in a state of mild fear and anxiety. For many users, every keystroke is fraught with peril. They are afraid that something Really Bad will happen if the wrong button is pushed, that they will be unable to undo. One of the joys of raising kids today is to see how comfortable they are pushing buttons on computers to see what happens. (My two-year-old navigates YouTube on an iPhone better than I do.) We forget that these skills do not come naturally, and even though grandma may have been using email for 10 years, she still might not have any clue how to find something on the Web. The lesson here is timeless: Strip the needless bells and whistles from your design and make it ridiculously easy for users to find what they need.
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4 thoughts on “Three things I learned from 20 minutes of watching my in-laws operate a web browser

  1. can you think of some excuse to keep them plugging away at the computer for another 36 hours? We’re through the looking glass, people.

  2. Chris, here’s another tidbit for you: Although they would never consider seeking, downloading, and installing a new program on their PC, they have dozens of downloaded apps on their iPhone.

  3. The url bar not being used is not limited to older people… I have seen countless colleagues open their web browser google is their home page, type in the exact url they are seeking and then click (not hit return) to get the search results then click on the first result.
    I can not tell you how frustrating this is to watch.
    And I would suffice to say that the timidness exhibited by an older user is due to them being users of windows instead of mac operating systems.
    Their willingness to seek and install apps on thier phone is because of it’s simplistic nature while doing so on a windows machine (even today) can throw information back at the user that makes them hesitate to click “download & install”

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