I have recently had the great fortune and pleasure of observing non-techies and neophytes use new software and it’s been an eye opening experience. Web designers who have been around software applications and the web for ten years develop certain assumptions about their users that may prove hazardous to their web app if their target users are supposed to be non technical or non web savvy users.

Here are some real life stories based on my first hand observations.

Story 1

I once had to perform a martial arts demonstration that was choreographed to music. I brought the music on my iPod. Prior to the demo, I gave my iPod to the sound technician and the MC. The iPod was set to the specific playlist and all they had to do was to hit Play when we bust out on stage. Apparently I had not counted on the fact that neither person had ever operated an iPod before and had no idea what to make of the click wheel. You could say that they must have been living under a rock for the last 10 years but I disagree. They weren’t stupid people either. One was an engineer and the other person was in the financial sector and had an MBA. Apple fanboys will argue me to death about the fact that Apple products are super easy to use. They might be once you learn how to use it but for a first timer with no instructions I think Apple devices can be quite cryptic.

Story 2
I observed a 10 year SaaS CEO and a software engineer use a particular website with much struggle and frustration. The software was supposed to be geared towards non-technical people but it was riddled with icons void of accompanying text descriptions. Neither of the users knew where anything was or what anything meant. The SaaS CEO who was used to Windows exclaimed that the software was full of Apple icons – confusing the use of icons for the Apple design sensibility.

I think these stories are indicative of a larger phenomenon. Designers who have been accustomed to the web and some of the UI affordances are making assumptions about certain user experiences.

Take for example this screenshot of Twitter for iPad. On the bottom left we see two icons. As a veteran web user and an interface designer, I immediately recognize that the two icons mean New Message/Compose and Settings.

However, I think that’s a pretty big leap for someone who’s not a web savvy user to assume that they know what those icons mean. I think UI designers can get too clever and do their audience a major disservice when they start making such assumptions about what icons their audience ought to recognize without further explanation.

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