January 24, 2010

To Assume makes an Ass out of U and Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:55 am
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Confused computer userWhen I was a High School English teacher I taught The King Must Die, the story of mythical Greek hero Theseus, to my freshmen. My students told me that they had studied mythology in Middle School, so I assumed that they had some frame of reference for reading a novel set in ancient Greece and Crete. I was surprised when, during a class discussion, one of the students asked why the hero was walking everywhere. “Why doesn’t he just drive?” I hadn’t thought that I’d have to explain to my class that cars didn’t exist 3000 years ago.

I’ve been thinking about assumptions this week. I just returned from my holiday visit with my parents. (Since I waited too long to book my Christmas trip it turned into a belated Twelfth Night trip instead.) While I have known for years that my mother is computer illiterate, I had assumed that she at least had some basic keyboarding experience. My father worked for IBM and then Lexmark, so we’ve always had typewriters and computers in the house. But it turns out that my mother hasn’t touched a typewriter in 30 or 40 years. So when I was talking her through the process of logging onto her e-mail account, I had to explain how to use the SHIFT key to get the @ sign in her e-mail address. Sitting with her and watching her struggle to learn how to double-click a mouse and click and drag the scroll bars was a bit of a revelation. At one point she turned to me and asked, “How did you ever learn all this?” And that question has haunted me all week.

At my first technical writing job we assumed that if you were a system administrator that you were probably an experienced computer user, possibly with a computer science degree. We also assumed that our Support folks just liked to complain about how clueless our users were. That is, until the doc team conducted a survey at our annual user conference to learn more about the audience for our documentation. We were surprised at the large number of people who said that their job title was “system administrator” who also described their computer experience as “novice” or “intermediate.” No wonder they were having troubles!

I used to rely on my developers opinions on whether information should be included in the documentation. But too often I would come across some concept that was unfamiliar to me, spend the time researching and writing an overview, only to be told that “Our customers would know that.” Really, would they? As I gained more confidence in my own ability to understand users, I stopped relying on my SME’s opinions about what users would know. Developers tend to be too familiar with computers and coding to have any idea of what it is like to be a typical computer user. They forget that the majority of computer users do not have computer science degrees, and consider computers to be more mysterious than logical.

When I got back to the office after visiting my parents, I started looking at our product and my documentation with new eyes. What assumptions are we making about our customers? And are there any simple steps we can take to help make the user experience better for our customers?

For example, when our UI designer at a previous company first introduced the unlabeled “Select All” check box, I complained that users wouldn’t know what it was for. “But it’s just like Yahoo Mail.” he said. But I didn’t use Yahoo Mail, I used AOL, so I’d never seen this feature before.
Select All Check Box

AOL has since adopted this check box, but their version doesn’t have a label either. How much effort would it take to add a tool tip (hover text) to label this check box “Select All”? Why do we assume that users will know how to use features if we don’t explain what they are for? Or even worse, if we don’t even label them?

When I write, I tend to put myself in the user’s shoes and ask “What would *I* expect to find in the documentation? What questions would I have about this product?” I’m a bright person, so if I find something confusing, I assume that our users might find it confusing too. Yes, I’m making assumptions about our users, but I’d like to think that my users appreciate the fact that I’d rather assume they might need information than to assume that they already know it. Isn’t conveying information what good technical writing is all about?

If I include information that a user doesn’t need, they can easily skip over it. For example, when I use Google Maps, I don’t really need to know how to get out of my driveway and onto the highway. I skim through the first several steps in the directions until I get to the first major highway and follow the directions from there. And on the return trip, once I’ve arrived on a familiar road I abandon the directions.

What assumptions are you making about your users? And what simple changes can you make that will benefit your users?



  1. That must’ve been surprising when you found that many system administrators are inexperienced. Like you, I’ve often assumed that system administrators were pretty advanced computer users.

    What does this mean for Agile projects? I guess it means that we should insist on user stories that include an accurate description of the user’s experience and expectations.

    I like your rule of thumb: Since I’m a bright person, if I find something confusing, I probably should explain it for my users.

    Comment by Larry Kunz — January 25, 2010 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  2. Nice story and very accurate. Even in Agile development environment we have to make sure we question how the user stories are developed. Did the person responsible for a particular story actually talk with someone in the job or are they making assumptions based on who they think the user is? Getting the right user description has always been a challenge and getting the most precise, concise, and least confusing information to the reader is our goal.

    Comment by Julio Vazquez — January 25, 2010 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julio Vazquez and Larry Kunz, Peg Mulligan. Peg Mulligan said: RT @larry_kunz: Good post about audience analysis on the HeraTech blog: To Assume makes an Ass out of U and Me http://bit.ly/8pToNB […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention To Assume makes an Ass out of U and Me « HeraTech -- Topsy.com — January 25, 2010 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

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