The User

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Let’s talk about users. This user is, seemingly, a mythical creature; commonly believed to be a slow, lumbering creature grazing the Internet, credit card in hand, clicking on things essentially at random. Occasionally users are captured and studied in a lab by people who graduated from prestigious universities with a degree in the important-sounding field of “Human-Computer Interaction”. In most cases, these users are released back into the wild unharmed.

It is also commonly believed that the user is a creature of such low intelligence that it either cannot (or worse, refuses to) understand how a computer works. There are several opinions on what to do about this. Some believe users completely unfit to actually use computers and clap their hands over their ears at the first mention of the beasts. Others, recognizing the revenue potential of building a product for use by people other than computer professionals (also called “geeks” or “nerds”), declare a sort of fealty to the user and try their hardest to help the user by writing things like manuals, documentation and FAQs and staying up all night “optimizing the user workflow to improve our first-run funnel”.

Still others, observing the fact that users seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate, wring their hands day and night about a future where there aren’t any more programmers, geeks or nerds and the entire planet is covered by nothing but drooling, stammering users. “Who will create content for the users if there’s nothing but users?” they cry. Shouts of “Our entire civilization will fall apart if there aren’t Atari 2600s to learn to program on!” are followed by breast-beating, hemming, hawing and more handwringing.

Reader, I have some startling news for you. It has recently been discovered that users are in fact, people. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, people are human beings who are generally very busy. How did this happen? How could we have mistaken people, especially very busy, very smart people like doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics and baseball umpires, for slow, dimwitted users?

Sauropods, swamps and Sam Neill

To answer that question, we need to make a short detour into history of paleontology. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Bone Wars were raging, and the Achilles and Hector of the Bone Wars were Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. This was a time when wealthy men raced to out do one another on the field of scientific combat and careful scientific study took a backseat to egos and sensationalism. Many, many mistakes were made. One of the most famous is poor Brontosaurus, discovered by Marsh in 1877.

You may remember Brontosaurus if you grew up obsessed with dinosaurs, like I did. At age 8 I was absolutely captivated by anything that had been extinct for at least 65 million years. Brontosaurus, meaning “thunder lizard”, was truly an impressive animal to imagine. Up to 80 feet long, it had a massive body, huge legs and an unbelievably long neck and tail. Brontosaurus, like the other sauropods, was said to live in marshy swamps. After all, an animal that massive needs a tremendous amount of energy to simply hold itself up, and there’s no way it could get enough with a small mouth with which to chew food. Clearly, Brontosaurus needed the buoyancy of water simply to live.

It turns out this was all terribly wrong. Firstly, there wasn’t any animal quite like the Brontosaurus that Marsh described. What Marsh found was an adult Apatosaurus skeleton with the head of a Camarasaurus. Secondly, it turns out that sauropods had plenty of energy. Like birds, they didn’t chew their food at all; they swallowed it whole and mashed it up in a part of their stomach called the gizzard; the size of their mouth wasn’t a limiting factor. In reality, they were probably quite active animals — Jurassic Park depicts one standing on its hind legs to munch on some leaves. Thirdly, it turns out that sauropods didn’t live in the water at all — in fact, analysis by Robert T. Bakker showed that sauropods hated it, and would move out as an area became wet.

Whither users

If you haven’t already guessed it, Reader, the point of that aside was that just like Marsh, we nerds created users out of thin air by making a lot of quick, baseless assumptions. Marsh assumed sauropods chewed their food, and so he saw a water-bound reptilian sloth instead of an unmasticating lizard with a gizzard. We assumed that users were incapable of comprehending computers, and so we saw a blithering idiot instead of a busy person too focused on completing a task to take the time to learn how the internet works.

As more and more people depend on computers for every day things, the products that succeed are going to be ones that figure this out. People don’t want to mess with multiple windows or command lines because they want to “just do” whatever one thing that they’re doing. People click on the first link on Google — even if it’s “clearly” a news article — because they’re trying to get to Facebook and that’s how they’ve gotten there the past 50,000 times.

Trying to understand the behavior of people solely through metrics, usability lab studies and surveys is like trying to figure out the habits of creatures that lived hundred of millions years ago based a on handful of fossilized bone fragments. When you have limited data it’s very easy to get an assumption wrong. And one wrong assumption can lead you down a very long rabbit hole.


  1. Rob replied on February 17th, 2010:

    Are you saying the people who commented on that ReadWriteWeb article aren’t idiots?

    Because I’d have to disagree with you.

  2. Colin Barrett replied on February 18th, 2010:

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

    Here’s an example from real life: I know nothing about gas heaters. Literally, nothing. I was able to light a pilot light on a gas heater once — and that was largely through trial and error, plus a healthy dose of Youtube and WikiHow. A couple weeks ago, the heater at a friend’s place wasn’t working. I, of course, leapt into action. Twenty minutes later I still had not lit the heater. By the end there were three of us all peering into it, trying to figure it out. Eventually we just gave up and put on sweaters.

    Am I stupid? No. I just don’t know shit about heaters. Are the RWW commenters stupid? No. They just don’t know shit about how the internet works.

  3. Phil Nelson replied on February 18th, 2010:

    Calling a metaphoul on that gas heater analogy.

  4. Colin Barrett replied on February 18th, 2010:

    Phil: That’s not a particularly helpful or constructive comment. Could you please reply with an explanation?

  5. Adam Brown replied on February 20th, 2010:

    Upon needing to light the pilot light did you then walk outside to the A/C unit, open it up, look for the pilot light and upon finding nothing resembling the pilot light you lit before call the service number on the A/C unit and proceed to complain that this new heater design was messed up and broken?

    That’s more like what the RWW commenters did.