Usability: Are “Stupid Users” really just a symptom of lazy software?


Any conversation with programmers or technical support people regarding users will often lead to many stories about “can you believe how stupid users are?” But how often is it really the software that is stupid, rather than the users?

Users frequently make some very simplistic assumptions about software (or computerized devices in general):

  • Simple things will work
  • If it lets me do it, everything must be ok.

These are not really bad assumptions. Many of the things the mere users try to do only sound stupid to those “in the know” – those who have been suitably trained and conditioned by software to know that the perfectly reasonable things the user wants to do are indeed stupid.

Take an example. A user has an MP3 file, and they really want a WAV file. Naively, the user renames the file from a .mp3 extension to a .wav extension, and is baffled that the file does not behave as a WAV file. We all know that this is not how software works, right? This user then becomes another story for some tech support person.

However, there was nothing wrong with the user. The user wanted a WAV. The OS let him rename the file from .mp3 to .wav, so everything must be ok, right?

I would suggest that it is the software here that is stupid, not the user. Or more correctly, the software is just lazy. It cannot be bothered preventing the user from doing things that don’t make sense. It cannot be bothered acting in an intuitive manner, or at least informing the user that it is not acting so. Hey, maybe the software could actually do something useful, like convert the MP3 file to a WAV file, which is what the user wants in the first place. Or at the very least, tell the user how to do it.

In general, users are not stupid. They just want to do stuff, and they expect software to allow them to do it in an intuitive manner. So if your tech support logs are filled with stories of “stupid users”, maybe you should have a long, hard look at your software.

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