Sometimes it’s hard to remember that some very smart people just don’t know how the web and browsers work

Mar 06 2010 Published by under Information Science

Back when I was working at the public library, I used to do the "introduction to the internet" classes. These were typically at 9 - before the library opened- and so attracted stay at home moms and retirees. Attendees usually picked things up pretty quickly. For one thing, they admitted not knowing how anything worked so would listen and take notes and then stay to practice on the public systems. We assume that "kids today" and indeed all educated adults are fluent in the use of browsers and the web. Not so. There is a strange example recently that demonstrates this point.  I assumed everyone had heard about it, but chatting with people, it make sense to reiterate here.

Read/Write Web is a popular blog that covers all versions of social media. It's been around for a long time as these things go. Recently, they did a post - like any of their others - on how AIM would integrate your Facebook friends as contacts. This is part of Facebook Connect and works on the basis that people didn't want to go around locating all of their contacts in each new service, but just keep them up to date in Facebook and go from there. The post was fairly ordinary - useful analysis showing a depth of knowledge about social media - but typical for the site.  This is when things got strange.

Through some twist of search engine optimization, this post got ranked first for Google searches on facebook (or perhaps facebook login). Hundreds if not thousands of people showed up, thinking they were on facebook. They left comments that they didn't like the new site design and that their login didn't work. They were mad that someone had messed up their facebook and demanded it back. Some of these people have their pictures in their comments - they're representative of the users of facebook:  mostly  younger, but some middle aged and some older.

People mistake the search box on the page for the address bar - or actually don't know that there is an address bar. They then click on whatever comes up first (eek the information security implications!). This is one reason that an intranet search without spotlighting fails - the first result by typical relevance ranking isn't what people want.

Actually, I've seen a family member with a masters degree who is very savvy about information and communication not know to open the browser to go online. She types what she wants into the search block in Outlook, and when Outlook doesn't know what to do with it, it passes the search to Bing and opens the browser to show the results!  I was flabbergasted. Others don't know about bookmarks, so copy the links into e-mails to themselves.  Admittedly, this works better than browser bookmarks when you're changing machines from home to work, but there have been solutions for that for years. Over the phone, I desperately tried to walk someone through getting to our website - it's got a shortcut so all you have to type in the address bar is library. Unfortunately, many can't find the address block. If they've got the default home page the IT department loads, they can at least search and find us. Sigh.

So when we're designing library tools, are we assuming that if they've even made it to our site at all they can probably figure out how to work it? Do we need Google ads for anyone coming from our ip ranges so if they click the first thing, they'll get to library resources? Would that be a better use of our money than some expensive research databases that are little used? Should organizations divert web searches and frame them or something with local results? Provide Google results in the middle of the page, but somewhere provide spotlighted organization things? Maybe that would come across as evil.

8 responses so far

  • Ed S. says:

    "It looks like you are trying to write a letter." Clippy tries to help even though millions of users have banished him from their desktops. He's still out there, helping you whether you want him to or not.

  • GrayGaffer says:

    I know Xmarks keeps bookmarks synced between different computers, but that is not what I need for my work machine which has a completely different set - indeed, is required to not have all my personal links. So what is the solution other than email, or Evernote? (Enote btw saves the whole html but without full interpretation of js so that aspect of it is usually wasteful and not very useful).
    Other than that, yes, I also note that we are still far away from "intuitive" computer interfaces, whatever the manufacturers say, when it comes to those not endowed with UI-capable imaginations. Who come in all ages and IQ ranges.
    Game systems seem to do a better job of this than the general purpose OSes.

  • Fargo says:

    Depending on the user it's sometimes easier, when trying to get them into the address bar, to have them use alt+d, a shortcut that works in at least all the browsers I regularly use, which is to say Firefox IE Safari and Chrome.
    Just an fyi in case it might help you at some point.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I did not know that! Cool - because it's a pain to take someone on a guided tour of their screen over the phone.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I was thinking mainly of social bookmarking tools but I think you can do it with google toolbar. You could do it with one of the citation managers that syncs or is web based, but that might be more of a pain.

  • Lynxreign says:

    The website (or is an on-line bookmarking site. Check it out, it is an easy to use site and lets you access your bookmarks from any computer and give them keywords so they're easy to find.

  • #2 GrayGaffer:
    Xmarks will keep home and work bookmarks separate. Go into settings and set up separate profiles.

  • deang says:

    I used to work in a university office where we helped professors and grad students with electronic grade posting and other intra-university electronic communication and I encountered a lot of what you're talking about. Since I'm a person who also finds the web (and computers generally, really) baffling, I enjoyed helping the least knowledgeable people walk through the process. It really isn't obvious what to do for many people, and people get very annoyed that working with computers takes up so much time. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Some people involved in intellectual pursuits resent having to spend time away from substantive issues figuring out technical things like computer functions, especially when they change so much and so often. I am not ashamed to say that I'm one of the ones who can rarely figure out what to do online without being told.
    I suspect the confused Facebook users you describe have come to accept that much of the web just changes occasionally in irrational ways and assumed that that's what happened, and that's not such an unreasonable conclusion. Many of us have also come to use computers without really understanding how their various functions work, much as most people drive cars without entirely knowing how they work.