All posts in User Experience

Five Things I’ve Learned About redditors (so far)

This is my reddit avatar. All employees get one
About a month ago, I took a gig to design the user experience of reddit. It’s a pretty exciting challenge!  My first projects have been mostly on mobile, and they’ve been a blast.  Check out our recently released AMA app on iTunes and Android and recently acquired Alien Blue iOS app.

The first step towards better user experience is better understanding of the users, so the quest begins with understanding redditors. And, there’s a lot of them: 6% of all online adults!1 Understanding so many people requires attacking the problem at multiple angles.

One of the most direct ways to learn about a large user population is through surveys. The benefit of surveys is that they can be deployed broadly and analyzed statistically.  The main drawback is that they skew results towards the users who choose to complete them.

A few weeks ago, I released a test survey the subreddit2 called /r/samplesize, which is dedicated to posting and taking surveys for other redditors.  I received 226 responses. Bearing in mind the enormous grain of salt that these results are comprised entirely of self-selecting users, here’s what I learned:

1. Twice as many men responded to the survey than women.

While I don’t know how representative this ratio is of reddit as a whole, this is already far more gender-balanced than previous self-selected surveys from three years ago.34

2. Most active users have been redditors for 1-3 years.

This isn’t too surprising considering the survey was given to a subreddit that only longer-term users would be aware of. However, given the site’s high bounce rate, it’s likely that reddit could improve at welcoming and retaining newer users.  After all, if reddit can’t create core users at a rate at or above dropout (churn) rate, its population will gradually decline.

3. Reading favorite subreddits is redditors’ most valued activity.

I asked users to rank their activities on reddit from not very important to extremely important: here are the responses only for extremely important.  As you can see, reading favorite subreddits was by far most commonly marked as extremely important.  User’s front pages was the second most marked as extremely important, which isn’t surprising since 99.2% of survey respondents have accounts which they use to modify their front page.

4. Users primarily want reddit to entertain them. Their secondary expectation is for community.

Here, I asked “what do you expect of reddit?” with a freeform response.  The tallies are per response rather than per user, such that if a user said she expected “community and humor,” I’d give one tally to community and another to humor.

Wanting reddit to be entertaining isn’t surprising: it’s the front page of the internet, after all.  What’s particularly interesting is how often community and communication were cited as expectations.  Discussion, particularly through comments, was the second most frequently cited expectation.  What’s reflected in “free speech,” “openness,” and “local content” were mainly variations on the idea that reddit content is different primarily because of its community.  Of these, about half of the responses mentioned the value of varied perspective – that reddit provided content and stories that users might otherwise not have found (or answers to questions they were afraid to ask).

5. What frustrates redditors most are other redditors.

For this freeform question, I simply asked redditors what frustrates them about reddit. The majority of responses could be summarized by concern that reddit is or is becoming dominated by negative viewpoints. Most common were concerns that homophobia, racism, and/or misogyny were unduly influencing the community. Second most common were concerns that reddit culture was becoming homogenized. Words such as “hivemind,” “groupthink,” and “in-jokes” appeared frequently. The most common frustration not related to the community was that the site itself was ugly and/or poorly designed.

It’s fascinating to get some insight into how these longterm users think about reddit and its future.  The challenge from here will be to learn more about the people who may not self-select to take a survey: newer users, non-users, and the population of reddit overall.  We’re planning user tests now to learn about newer redditors, and in-person interviews can help give more in-depth data on behavior.  But we’ll continue using surveys too: here’s the next if you’d like to take one!


  1. Pew Research: 6% of Online Adults are reddit Users 
  2. subreddit: a sub-communities within reddit focused on a specific topic 
  3. Who in the World is reddit? Results are in… 
  4. I made a basic Reddit Demographic Survey. Let’s find out who we are… 

Looking Ahead: Challenges for the Open Web

Mozilla at the 2008 Summit in Whistler.  Mozilla Community at 2008 Summit. Taken by Gen Kanai

At the end of this week, I’m moving on after six amazing years at Mozilla. On August 25, I’ll be joining Reddit – another global open source project – as their first user experience designer. I’m ecstatic to help shape and design the future of another incredible community.

In looking back at all that’s changed in technology and the web since I joined Mozilla, I find myself humbled at the trials we’ve met and overcome. When I joined in 2008, we were smaller and scrappier. Fellow designer Alex Faaborg and myself stood before whiteboards, explaining how tabs on top of the URL bar were more efficient. The bug backlogs of Firefox 3 kept us up at night, but when we launched in July 2008 we made the Guinness Book of World Records for most software downloads in 24 hours1. Chrome didn’t even exist yet!

Of the challenges in Mozilla’s future, many are nearly universal for open source communities and largely unsolved. Here are three I find myself often returning to:

1. How do we protect users’ data when users consistently choose utility over privacy?

You can package it any way you like, but if your privacy-centric product even slightly hinders user enjoyment of the web, it won’t see wide adoption.

When prompted, users overwhelming cite online privacy (referring to data being shared with companies and governments) as a concern. A recent poll2 showed 26% of people were “extremely concerned” about privacy when using a search engine, with nearly 90% expressing some level of concern. And yet, 92% of those use Google and only 3% use DuckDuckGo, an explicitly non-tracking search engine. In the developing world and younger markets, users are even less concerned. Mozilla’s research team is currently investigating attitudes towards privacy in Malaysia and the Philippines, and most people they’ve spoken with don’t even have a concept “online privacy” aside from not wanting their friends and relatives to see all they’ve posted to social media.

Those of us who care about online privacy are increasingly at a values impasse with our users. The solution is not to simply inform, coax, or frighten users into taking security measures.

Most importantly, a world without the practical technological possibility of privacy is much scarier than one where users can choose, either actively or passively, to share their information.

2. How can global communities accommodate incompatible values?

Philipp asks if this is good for the company

Championing inclusiveness and diversity is an easy decision for most organizations. But when push comes to shove, members of any large community will still disagree fundamentally on many important values. The need to bridge fundamental divides is an inevitability.

As an example, open source contributors disagree vehemently when it comes to DRM. Is it better to follow the content industry and implement extensions so content owners can control how users share content? Or, is DRM’s current instantiation so harmful to an open web that it’s worth limiting user’s access to content to avoid supporting it? Both these views and many others exist amongst Mozilla contributors, yet ultimately decisions about what ships in Firefox must be made. When this happens, the community cannot simply shrink by the number of people opposed to the decision.

To successfully cooperate, global communities have to form a sustainable plurality. The key is allowing members to operate in a context of known responsibilities to each other, yet also generalized freedom to hold, express, and act on their views. Freedom of expression should exist by default, but the community will collapse if members don’t understand that they also have responsibilities that are defined and understood.

Furthermore, the balance of power between the community at large and its leadership is best when it is understood and predictable. Major organizational decisions are often be made by a few executives or benevolent dictators for life. Where and how these decisions are made as well as what was decided needs to be widely available for a community to cohere. The community must also know the difference between the organizational values which guide decisions and the personal values of leaders which do not. Realistically, the two are never wholly separate.

The question over “public vs. private” values in leadership has been addressed frequently at Mozilla. Perhaps the lines that separate public and private views cannot be entirely explicit, but acknowledging and engaging openly about differences bring strength to a community. Again, this is best where the role and position of leaders in making decisions is clear.

3. How can design culture embrace open source?

Affinity Diagramming with Firefox in Toronto

Within design communities, open source is still met with disinterest at best and derision at worst. This is hurting both open source and design.

The main barrier towards design culture embracing open source is a chicken-and-egg: few open source projects appear to value usability and design. Scratch-your-own-itch hacker culture assumes the creators of technology are its users, which deemphasizes the need for usability and accessibility. Additionally, feedback in open-source is heard mainly from a few power-users, and the temptation to appease them can thwart designs that would appeal to a wider audience.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source stems from designers’ wariness over being taken advantage of. I remember Mark Mentzer, one of my Carnegie Mellon design professors, warning his students to “never work for free!” This attitude runs deep in design circles, and for good reason: we’ve become used to requests for work where the only payment will be “another piece in your portfolio.” Honoring those requests devalues design work as a whole.

But, open source is different from free labor. Just as developers do, designers love their work and often consider it a hobby as well as an occupation. The transformative potential of open source projects excites designers as much as developers. By insisting on excellent user experience, open source projects can show designers that they are communities that value design.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source is because code contributions fit more easily into open projects than design contributions. Any developer can jump into an open source project by taking and fixing a bug. Little context is needed beyond what’s provided in the ticket: current behavior, expected behavior, acceptance criteria. Patch written, reviewed, done, boom.

In design, more context and background is needed to “fix a problem,” which hinders potential community contributions. A design “bug” is harder to identify than most engineering bugs. Simply diagnosing them requires user research, collaboration, and context. Providing well-scoped design problems with dedicated mentors can help bring on contributors.



Mozilla Heart

To Mozilla, thank you for six amazing years. You’re my allies, my friends, and the most incredible people I know.


  1. Mozilla sets new Guinness World Record with Firefox 3 downloads 
  2. Right To Be Forgotten: Do Users Even Care? 

Firefox’s Redesigned Preferences Feel More like the Web

Another great Firefox improvement is releasing soon!

Firefox’s Preferences, until now, have required navigation through a cumbersome floating window where it’s nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for. This window is a classic example of a common software problem: settings are slowly added onto the interface as new functionality is introduced, and eventually it sags under the weight.

The mess that is current Firefox Preferences

The mess that is current Firefox Preferences

Until now, that is!

The Firefox UX team is excited to announce that brand new, beautiful Preferences are now the default in Firefox nightlies and will soon be in release Firefox. In this redesign, the interface is visually consistent, the information architecture is improved, and the whole thing is rendered in content space rather than as a separate window.

Firefox’s new in-content preferences

Why is it important that Preferences are in the content space rather than a separate window?

  1. Consistency across devices. By using the content space, we no longer have to rely on the ability of a device to draw separate windows and dialogs. This is particularly important on tablets and phones, where window management is more difficult. Now, users of mobile Firefox will see a familiar interface when move to desktop Firefox, and vice versa.
  2. Consistency across operating systems. Windows, OSX, and Linux all create windows and dialogs differently, which means the user’s experience with Preferences was different depending on the OS. Now, as we draw this interface within Firefox, we can make it look and feel identical across systems.
  3. Consistency with the web. Ultimately, the browser is a doorway to the rest of the web. For the browser to behave like a dialog-heavy desktop application rather than the web itself was jarringly anachronistic. Beneficially, rendering like a website also means users won’t need to find and manage a separate window in addition to their open tabs.
  4. Space to grow. Not being bounded by a small, floating window means we can create richer customization experiences. The Add-ons manager has already  moved to content space, and we’ve been able to explore richer use cases as a result. Similarly, expect to see innovative customization experiments as well as the usual Firefox settings.

And before you ask, yes, the next step is absolutely a search field in Preferences to summon the exact setting you’re looking for. This is needed particularly so users won’t have to “learn” our interface, but can instead focus on their task.

A special thank you goes to Senior Visual Designer Michael Maslaney, who’s been spearheading Project Chameleon, the style guide behind this redesign. Another thank you goes to MSU students Owen Carpenter, Joe Chan, Jon Rietveld, and Devan Sayles for creating the award-winning first version of Firefox’s in-content Preferences in May 2012.

Firefox and Flux: A New, Beautiful Browser is Coming

Tomorrow, on April 29, something amazing is coming to Firefox.

It’s not an interface adjustment or tweak.  It’s not a bug fix.  It’s a complete re-envisioning of Firefox’s user experience, and it’s been brewing for the past five years.

Firefox on Linux, OSX, and Windows

Firefox on Linux, OSX, and Windows

Good to Great

This new Firefox, Firefox 29, was borne out of a series of incredible, detail-obsessed designers and engineers understanding that taking products from good to great requires more than a series of incremental improvements.

Good can be achieved through incrementalism.  Great requires, at times, overhaul.

Firefox 29 contains extensive improvements that were planned back when Alex Faaborg, Madhava Enros, and myself were the only designers at Mozilla.  Back then, Firefox was beginning to buckle under the weight of its inconsistent code and interface.

Realizing the Need for Overhaul

It’s common enough for large codebases maintained across years to develop inconsistencies.  But, Firefox’s nature as an open-source community project contributed to idiosyncratic user experiences.   Menus and dialogs used different tenses and tones.  Add-ons behaved unpredictably.  Customization was handled differently throughout the browser.  Over the past few years, we’ve been working to improve many instances of inconsistent behavior, such as replacing modal dialogs for tab-modal ones, standardizing notifications, and using a uniform tone-of-voice.

Making improvements here and there is often what user experience designers at an organization are expected to do: fix what’s broken, slightly improve what isn’t, and generally don’t get in the way of engineering effort.  But, this method can only make an existing product slightly better, and the gaps it causes reveal themselves in time.

A sinking ship can’t be patched endlessly when it needs a new hull.  This is when user experience design is most effective: when it envisions the system as a whole.  When it steps away from the trees and sees the forest holistically.

Firefox needed a new hull, and the bulk of that hull is arriving on Tuesday.

Others have been blogging about Firefox 29’s beautiful redesign, so I’ll just mention the highlights.

Consistent Customization

Customizing Firefox is now entirely predictable and much more fun.  Rather than digging into Preferences windows and dialogs, you can make Firefox the way you like via dragging-and-dropping buttons wherever you want them.

A Customize panel – itself customizable – displays the tools you want available in a single click but don’t want cluttering your interface.

Firefox Customize Menu

Firefox Customize Menu

Simple and Streamlined

Gone are the bulky angles and edges of tabs and menus.  In Firefox 29, you’ll see streamlined, almost aerodynamic, curves giving emphasis to your current tab and subtly understating the rest.

Streamlined Tab Shape

Streamlined Tab Shape

Themes and Personalization

Making Firefox visually your own is not only easy, but gorgeous.  Lightweight themes look fantastic in 29 with a light interface overlay on whatever image inspires you while you browse.

Lightweight Theme Applied to Firefox

Lightweight Theme Applied to Firefox

Obsession with Details

It’d be hard to describe all the changes coming to Firefox in a single post, but I hope you’ll find that we left no stone unturned.  Firefox 29 is all about details: the glows, the colors, the animations all reflect our desire to make the entire experience seamless.  A special hat tip to our visual designer, Stephen Horlander, for his painstaking eye for detail.

It's All About the Details

It’s All About the Details

Tomorrow’s launch day will, perhaps, be our biggest yet.  It’s certainly an emotional day for myself and the others who have worked on this release for years.  I can’t wait.  I hope you love it.

Update on Firefox 13’s Home and New Tab Redesign

(Note: the following has been cross-posted to Mozilla UX)

Two Firefox features getting a redesign in Firefox 13 (currently in beta) are the Home Tab and New Tab. Home Tab can be viewed by clicking house icon in Firefox or by typing “about:home” into your URL bar. New Tab appears when you click the “+” at the end of your tab strip.

Firefox 13 New Tab Page

Firefox 13 Home Tab Page (launch targets emphasized)

Firefox’s Home Tab and New Tab have, until now, had fairly basic pages. In Firefox 12, Home Tab had a large search bar, a “snippet” which Mozilla uses to display messages to users, and little else. The main reason the search bar is on Home Tab is because many users click the Home button to initiate a search, either unaware of the toolbar search box or preferring not to use it. The snippet allows Mozilla to give a message to users, such as last October when it asked users in the United States to contact their representatives when the anti-internet-freedom bill SOPA was being heard in the House of Representatives. Such messages can be important while not being urgent enough to disrupt users with a notification.

New Tab, for most of Firefox’s history, has been completely blank. This was done deliberately to offer users a clean, fresh “sheet” to begin a new browsing task. However, a blank tab may not be distracting, but it’s also not useful.

Surely, we thought, we can present a more helpful design than a blank page! Using Mozilla Test Pilot, we began to research how Firefox users use New Tabs. What we learned is that each day, the average Firefox user creates 11 New Tabs, loads 7 pages from a New Tab, and visits two unique domains from a New Tab. The average New Tab loads two pages before the user closes or leaves it.

What this tells us is that users create many New Tabs, but they’re very likely from those to return to a limited number of their most-visited websites. So, we began to experiment with giving users quick access on New Tab to the websites they visit most frequently.

What you’ll see on the New Tab page of Firefox 13 are your most-visited sites displayed with large thumbnails, reducing the time it takes to type or navigate to these pages. This data comes directly from your browsing history: it’s the same information that helps Firefox’s Awesome Bar give suggestions when you type. Or, if you want to go somewhere new, the URL bar is still targeted when you type on a New Tab page. If you want to hide your top sites – permanently or temporarily – a grid icon in the top right wipes the new tab screen to blank.

Mozilla Home is getting a redesign, too! While still keeping the prominent search bar and snippet, the graphic style is softer, the text is more readable, and launch targets at the bottom allow you to quickly access areas such as Bookmarks, Applications, and previous Firefox sessions.

Both Home and New Tab are being improved as part of our longterm vision of making Firefox more powerful, engaging, and beautiful. Over the next few releases, more design improvements will be made towards this goal. For now, please try out Firefox’s new Home and New Tab pages in Firefox 13 Beta and tell us that you think!

How People Use New Tabs

As the web evolves, so does the way people interact with the web. Firefox’s user experience and research teams have been eager to learn about our users’ browsing habits so that we can better design for our users.  Lately, Mozillians like Lilian Weng and Jono X have been running some fascinating studies using Test Pilot to determine how, when, and why Firefox users open new tabs.  I wanted to note a few key takeaways from their recent study that give us a glimpse into how our users browse (full studies are linked at the bottom of this post).

A caveat is that these results – as with all Test Pilot studies – are gathered using anonymized data submitted by users who have signed up to participate in Test Pilot. Thus, the Test Pilot users data tends to skew slightly towards the technical and early-adopter crowd.

How are people currently using new tabs?

Each day, the average Firefox user creates 11 new tabs, loads 7 pages from a new tab, and visits 2 unique domains from a new tab.[1] The average new tab loads two pages before the user closes or leaves it.[2]

Once users have a new tab page open, about half of the time (53%) they navigate to a new page using their mouse, and about half of the time (47%) they use the keyboard.[1]

Here’s a breakdown of what actions users take once they’ve opened a new tab:

How People Use New Tabs

As you can see above, the URL bar was the most-used item on a new tab page, with 53% of use actions originating there. The search bar only accounted for 27% of user actions. Even though by default it’s not even enabled in Firefox, 16% of new tab page actions were clicking on a URL in the bookmark bar. History and bookmarks menus were both used less than 5% of the time.

In this study, 17.4% of the domains recorded accounted for 80% of the page views for all participants. You might think that the more active a user is, the number of unique domains they’d visit would follow the same ratio. However, this study found that the more sites a user visited online, they more often they would visit the same 20% of domains. Turns out, the most active internet users are even more loyal to a few choice domains than their less active counterparts.[2]

[1]Quick report on new tab study, by Lilian Weng

[2]Test Pilot New Tab Study Results, by Mozilla Research Team

Thumbnails, Titles, and URLs: How Users Recognize Representations of Websites

The Mozilla user experience team often designs features that represent sites to users in a variety of ways. For example, Firefox tabs display favicons and page titles, while Panorama displays favicons, titles, and page thumbnails. So, I thought it would be useful to investigate the effectiveness of various ways of representing sites to users.

One interesting piece of research on page representation was published by Shaun Kaasten, Saul Greenberg, and Christopher Edwards at the University of Calgary in their paper How People Recognize Previously Seen Web Pages from Titles, URLs and Thumbnails (download it here). This team conducted a series of studies, most of which involved increasing one variable which represented a site the user had previously visited (such as thumbnail size) until the user recognized it, at which point the user would buzz in to stop the expansion and identify the site.

Here’s some key takeaways from what the Canadians learned:

Running sums of how large a growing thumbnail became before participants recognized it

- The graph above plots the thumbnail sizes at which test participants could recognize a domain (black lines) and a specific page within a domain (blue lines). The dotted lines show all responses, and the solid lines show only correct responses. You can see that by the time a thumbnail was 962 pixels, 60% of test subjects had identified it.  80% of test subjects identified sites by 1442 pixels, and by 3042 pixels everyone had identified the site.



- Users’ guesses about what site a thumbnail was representing were correct about 90% of the time. Not bad, considering on most sites they had no readable text to go by until the thumbnail was over 962 pixels. This shows how effective thumbnails are at identifying sites to users.

- Color and layout in were the most important factors for identifying a site when the thumbnail was 642 pixels and smaller. From 642 to 962 pixels, color, layout, images, and text were equally important. Above 1002 pixels, text was most important.  This is presumably because at that size, sites were not yet identified because they were visually similar to other sites and text was the only effective differentiator.

- Looking at only truncated URLs and page titles, test subjects could correctly identify sites 90% of the time.  The researchers experimented with URL and title representation by showing users right, middle, and left truncated strings and recording when they buzzed in to identify the site correctly.

Running sums of how many characters a page title (top) and URL (bottom) became before participants correctly recognized it

- The graph above shows the running sum of correct answers in identifying sites based on only page title (top graph) and URL (bottom graph).  You can see that right truncation proved the most effective for domain-level site identification.  For titles and URLS that were truncated on the right, sites were correctly identified 15% of the time with 5-6 characters revealed, 30% of the time with 8 characters, 60% of the time with 13-15 characters, and 80% of the time with 25-31 characters. Left truncation was the most effective for identifying a specific site within a domain.  So, if you want users to identify a site based on a string, at least 15ish characters are needed for even a majority.  If you want users to identify a subdomain, clip right left side of the URL.  To idenfiy the domain itself, clip the right.

Firefox Would Love to Read Your Mind

I’d like to highlight the awesome research project that intern Lilian Weng is leading around Firefox’s new tab page.

While our goal is to make users more efficient at their browsing tasks, what makes them more efficient is a question we keep returning to. Most other browsers display links on new tab pages based on frecency. Frecency is a portmanteau which combines frequency and recency. At Mozilla, we use it to refer to sites that users have been to often, recently, or both. It’s how we calculate what should be the first, second, third, etc site that appears when you type a letter into Firefox’s URL bar.

Using frecency to list links on a new tab page seems an obvious design direction, but we want to truly investigate whether another solution would be best for users. So, Lilian is spinning up a brave new study. Once her test is ready, users of Test Pilot, our platform for collecting structured feedback on Firefox, will be asked if they’d like to participate in a new study. If they say yes, they will be randomly assigned one of six new designs on their new, blank Firefox tabs. One of these six designs will be our control group: a blank white tab, just as Firefox users see currently. The other five will look almost identical to each other. They will display a simple 8×8 grid of favicons set on a button which is colored to highlight them based on a color-matching algorithm designed by Margaret Leibovic:

Minimal 8x8 Grid Layout of Site Links

The only variable that will be changing among the five designs is which sites are displayed in this grid. Here’s the five variations we’re testing:

  1. Frecency. A combination of a user’s most frequently and most recently visited sites.
  2. Most recently bookmarked sites. By displaying prominently what a user has recently starred, we effectively turn the new tab page into a read it later list.
  3. Most recently closed sites. This could lead users to treat new tab page as an undo feature, or close tabs in order to temporarily store them in the new tab page as a short-term read it later list.
  4. Sites based on content similarity. Intern Abhinav Sharma is trying out his project, called Predictive Newtabs, which displays sites based on where the user has opened a new tab from. For instance, if the user has been browsing a news site, a new tab would offer other news sites the user has been to.
  5. Sites based on groups of sites frequently visited together. In another part of Abhinav’s Predictive Newtabs experiments, he has designed an algorithm to predict sites to show based on sites users visit in groups. For instance, if every time you get to work you first check the weather and then check stock prices, this new tab would offer you a stock page on a new tab after you checked the weather. If you want to try this experiment out yourself, you can download the Jetpack here.

The above study is still in preparation, and once it goes live I predict that we’ll learn tons of valuable information about how new tab suggestions can positively impact users. Lilian will be collecting data on many aspects of users’ responses to these designs, such as how they effect the breadth of sites users visit, how likely they are to click on each item in the grid, and how long they spend deciding where to navigate. I can’t wait to start pouring over the data that comes back: it’s very new research in an area that has a profound impact on how we use the web.

User Testing in the Wild: Joe’s First Computer Encounter

This past Friday, I went to Westfield Mall in San Francisco to conduct user tests on how people browse the web, and especially how (or if) they use tabs. This was part of a larger investigation some Mozillians are doing to learn about users’ tab behavior.

The mall is a fantastic place to find user test participants, because the range of technical expertise varies widely. Also, the people I encountered tended to be bored out of their minds, impatiently waiting for their partners to shop or friends to meet them. However, rather than completing all 20 tests I was hoping to, I ended up spending three hours testing a man I’ll call Joe.

I find Joe, a 60-year-old hospital cafeteria employee, in the food court looking suitably bored out of his mind. Joe agrees to do a user test, so I begin by asking my standard demographics questions about his experience with the internet. Joe tells me he’s never used a computer, and my eyes light up. It’s very rare in San Francisco to meet a person who’s not used a computer even once, but such people are amazingly useful. It’s a unique opportunity to see what someone who hasn’t been biased by any prior usage reacts. I ask Joe if I could interview him more extensively, and he agrees.

I decide to first expose Joe to the three major browsers. I begin by pulling up Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer (as Joe encountered it)

Me: “Joe, let’s pretend you’ve sat down at this computer, and your goal is finding a local restaurant to eat at.”

Joe: “But I don’t know what to do.”

Me: “I know, but I want you to approach this computer like you approach a city you’re not familiar with. I want you to investigate and look around try and figure out how it works. And I want you to talk out loud about what you’re thinking and what you’re trying.”

(I show Joe how to use a mouse. He looks skeptical, but takes it in his hand and stares at the screen.)

Joe: “I don’t know what anything means.”

(Joe reads the text on IE and clicks on “Suggested Sites”)

Me: “Why did you click on that?”

Joe: “I don’t really know what to do, so I thought this would suggest something to me.”

(Joe reads a notification that there are no suggestions because the current site is private)

Joe: “I guess not.”

Joe looks around a bit more, but he’s getting visibly frustrated with IE, so I move on to Firefox.

Firefox (as Joe encountered it)

I give him the same task: find a local restaurant. He stares at the screen for awhile with his hand off the mouse, looking confused. I ask what he’s looking for. “I don’t know, anything that looks like it will help!” he says.  Finally, he reads the Apple context menu at the top of the screen, and his gaze falls on the word Help.

“Help, that’s what I need!” says Joe. He clicks on Help, but looks disappointed at what he sees in the menu.

“None of these can help me,” he says.

Joe is getting frustrated again, so I move on to Chrome and give him the same task.

Chrome (as Joe encountered it)

He proceeds to read all of the words on Chrome’s new tab page, looking for any that may offer guidance. Luckily for Joe, he spies a link to Yelp which is marked San Francisco in Chrome’s new tab page. He clicks it, and, seeing restaurants, declares he’s won.

I want to put Joe through other experiments at this point, but the tests are clearly taxing him. He looks very agitated, and has frequently in the tests declared that he “just doesn’t know,” “should have learned this by now,” and “has no excuse for not taking a class on computers.” No amount of assurance that I was testing software, not him, was calming him down. So, I decide to cut Joe a break. “Alright Joe, you’ve helped me, maybe I can help you.”

Because Joe has mentioned a few times he wants email, I get him a gmail.com email address and show him how to access it at a public computer. We practice logging into Gmail several times, and I end up writing a very explicit list of steps for Joe which includes items like “move mouse cursor to white box.” One of the hardest things to relate to Joe is the idea that you must first click in a text field in order to type.

When I am convinced that Joe understands how to check his email, I want to show him how he can use his new email address. So, I ask him why he had asked for an email address in the first place. I imagine he’ll say he wants to communicate with friends and relatives.

Joe: “I want discounts at Boudin Bakery.”

Me: “Sorry, what?”

Joe: “I want Boudin discounts, but they keep telling me I need email.”

(Joe takes his Boudin Bakery customer appreciation card out of his wallet and shows it to me)

I’m a little confused, but go ahead and register Joe’s Boudin Bakery card with his new email address. I show him the web summary of all the bread he’s bought lately. “Woah!” says Joe.

So, what did I learn from Joe?

  • There is little modern applications do to guide people who have never used a computer. Even when focusing on new users, designers tend to take for granted that users understand basic concepts such as cursors, text boxes, and buttons. And, perhaps, rightfully so – if all software could accommodate people like Joe, it would be little but instructions on how to do each new task. But, Joe was looking for a single point of help in an unfamiliar environment, and he never truly got it – not even in a Help menu
  • No matter their skill level, users will try to make sense of a new situation by leveraging what they know about previous situations. Joe knew nothing about computers, so he focused on the only item he recognized: text.  Icons, buttons, and interface elements Joe ignored completely
  • We shouldn’t assume that new users will inquisitively try and discover how new software works by clicking buttons and trying things out. Joe found using software for the first time to be frightening and only continued at my reassurance and (sometimes) insistence. If he was on his own in an internet cafe, I think he would have given up and left after a minute or so.  Giving visual feedback and help if someone is lost may help people like Joe feel they’re getting somewhere
  • Don’t make too many assumptions about how users will benefit from your technology – they may surprise you!