Are Users Stupid?

by Jakob Nielsen on February 4, 2001

Summary: Opponents of the usability movement claim that it focuses on stupid users and that most users can easily overcome complexity. In reality, even smart users prefer pursuing their own goals to navigating idiosyncratic designs. As Web use grows, the price of ignoring usability will only increase.

Usability opponents often complain that we user advocates are overly focused on stupid people. They commonly claim that:

  • We select stupid users for usability studies; our findings do not apply to smarter users.
  • Our recommendation to make simplicity a major design goal stems from our misguided view that all users are stupid. In reality, they claim, many users are capable of navigating complex sites.
  • Some people are so stupid that technology is beyond their grasp; making websites easy enough for everyone to navigate is an unrealistic goal.

I'll now address each of these claims, and then examine how attitudes about usability and user intelligence will impact business as the Internet population grows.

"Test Users are Stupid"

Typically, when project managers observe their design undergoing a usability test, their initial reaction is: Where did you find such stupid users?

This is exactly what happened recently when I released a WAP usability study. The study concluded that using WAP (to access the Internet through mobile phones) is too difficult for most purposes. In response, a group of big WAP investors rejected the findings, issuing a press release that claimed that the study's outcome would have been different if we had tested experienced WAP users. Although this might be true, their response misses the point.

  • First, it ignores the fact that users' initial experience with a new technology is crucial. People will never become experienced users unless they are capable of learning the technology in the first place.
  • Second, our study's participants used WAP phones for a week, and we tested them both at the beginning and the end of the period. If a full week of use is insufficient to learn a user interface, we are surely not talking about a mainstream consumer technology.

Usability lessons are not always easy to take. It is a painful experience to sit in the back room watching as a user clicks every button on the screen except the one button that "obviously" leads to the answer. The first time project members observe a usability study, they almost always lapse into denial about the true lessons of the experience.

Until we bring in the second user. He or she typically has many of the same problems as the first user. Then the third user comes in, and again: many of the same problems. At this point, designers often start to soften to the users' plight. If not, the fourth or fifth user will do the trick.

When people have problems using a design, it's not because they are stupid. It's because the design is too difficult.

"Real Users Don't Mind Complex Design"

Enthusiasts sometimes defend bleeding-edge technology and complex designs with the claim that users actually like sophisticated websites. Users, they assert, are smart enough to handle complicated design.

These enthusiasts labor under a miscomprehension about the Web's fundamental nature. It is not a question of whether users are capable of overcoming complexity and learning an advanced user interface. It is a question of whether they are willing to do so.

I have conducted many usability studies with users who had immense computer experience, great aptitude for technology, and high levels of IQ and education. These users are just like anybody else: they just want to get their work done. They have neither the desire nor the time to learn the idiosyncrasies of individual websites.

If you have doubts, run a test with network system administrators or international investment analysts, for example. What you'll discover is that they face plenty of complicated problems in their own work and they don't want to devote brain cells to your website or its design. They want to get in, get out, and move on with their own tasks.

Design complexity is a barrier for users. While they certainly might be capable of jumping the barrier, why should they? The Web is about freedom of movement. Anything that stands in the way of immediate task completion will negatively impact the user's experience.

"Some People are Too Stupid to Serve"

Some people are smarter than others. Most readers of this column probably belong to the top 10% of the population in terms of intelligence. From such a vantage point, it is easy to think of other people as being stupid. But perhaps it is more fair and more accurate (not to mention more productive) to assume that the other 90% of the population form the mainstream audience. Not that they are stupid.

Nonetheless, it might be true that some people do not have enough intelligence to use sophisticated and advanced high-tech systems. But are they online? Not likely at this point.

Even in the most wired societies like the United States and Scandinavia, only half the population is currently using the Internet. It continues to be quite an elitist medium. Thus, almost by definition at this point, anyone who is now using the Web is probably a fairly smart person. Given this, it makes no sense to blame users' difficulty with a site or design on stupidity. When current Web users have problems, it's because the design is too difficult.

Looking Ahead

As the Internet keeps growing, it will reach ever-broader segments of the population. Five years from now we might in fact have people online who could be indelicately described as stupid. Whether or not such people should be included or excluded from the Web is a political and social question:

What percentage of the population can we exclude from the new economy?

From my perspective, the answer is "very few." Politicians might say "zero," which is an honorable but unrealistic goal. Literacy offers a good analogy here: While all rich countries aim at zero illiteracy, there are always some children who don't learn to read. Nonetheless, we cannot accept high illiteracy rates and expect to maintain a prosperous society.

As far as meeting the need for Internet usability, we have yet to scratch the surface. Very few websites are easy enough to continue supporting users when the Internet reaches 80% of the population. To serve 95% of the population (let alone 99%), substantial advances in usability will be required.

Disregarding political and moral issues, the broadening user base poses a very simple business question: What percentage of your prospects will you turn away because they are not smart enough to use your website? Maybe 10% of your potential customers? Or perhaps 20%? That's a lot of dollars lost to an elitist attitude.

And, even if you accept a 20% loss in customers because your site is too difficult, you still need a site easy enough for 80% of the population to use. Considering that most sites are too difficult for the 50% of the population that is currently online, companies will have to substantially improve their usability to willingly abandon that "acceptable" 20%.

Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email