The web was all, um, a-twitter yesterday about clueless users: An article on ReadWriteWeb about Facebook Logins got pushed up to the near top of the Google News results for "Facebook Login" - and got visits from a lot of people trying to get to Facebook. These people didn't use the browser's address bar, but instead just typed "Facebook Login" into Google and clicked on the first likely-looking link that came up. A number of these people did manage to figure out how to leave a comment, so the article has a whole lot of comments saying things like
Living like I do in a world of programmers and gadget fans, it's easy to forget that many people are pretty helpless when it comes to technology. In my experience, it's usually not that people are stupid, but that they don't have the extra mental energy to devote to figuring these things out. Instead, they're concentrating on other things: raising children, being a lawyer, holding down three jobs, writing a book, or whatever.
It turns out that typing what you want into the search box is a popular way to get around the web. If you think about it, a search box is much easier to deal with than that URL bar with all the cryptic slashes and little support for misspellings and errors.
Although they're getting simpler to use, computers are still 'black boxes' to most people, full of unexpected behaviours and cryptic messages. Like a victim in an abusive relationship, users never know when they'll do something to cause a disaster, so they stick to what they know and do the bare minimum.
Programmers should be more sympathetic to this, since we've all had to climb learning curves when learning a new language or technology - and all have had to pass through the Cargo Cult stage of learning.
I remember my first big Java project back in 2001: I had been working in Lotus Notes long enough to learn all of its many quirks, and had only done a bit more than "Hello World" in Java - and now I was on a team doing a full DB2-backed JSP/Struts application with a ridiculously tight schedule for a big new customer. This was on Windows98, and before Eclipse got popular - we were using VisualAge for Java, an old lousy version of WebSphere Studio, a clunky Java-based DB2 tool, and for version control a buggy demo version of Microsoft Visual SourceSafe). Just getting everything to run properly, let alone build and deploy any real code, took lots of fine-tuning of system configurations and PATH settings.
There was one knowledgeable Java expert on the team, but I was completely out of my depth. I let him do all of the delicate configuration and then just programmed in my own little world and then didn't touch anything else. Just ramping up to the new skills and building the actual application (and dealing with the lousy tools) took all of the mental energy I had. When something did go wrong, I would go into a helpless panic and whine at the expert that "everything's broken!" and plead with him to do his magic to fix it.
I realized that this was exactly the same kind of behaviour that I got from users I had worked with over the years. The helplessness was stressful, but I was most surprised by how embarrassed I felt - I like to think of myself as a capable person and this was evidence to the contrary. It was a great insight into the mental space of the regular people who used the software that I wrote. Most people don't like to think of themselves as stupid (especially the ones who are stupid), and will do what they can to avoid situations that make them feel that way.
We actually delivered on the project (after a lot of late nights), and I was eventually able to start doing Java projects on my own. I never forgot that feeling of helplessness, and how many other people out there feel that way when working with computers all the time.