Tech-Support Tales: Internet Hard to Use for Novice Users

by Jakob Nielsen on April 1, 1997

The Internet is still much too difficult to use for novice users. Specialized information appliances like WebTV reduce complexity but still involve considerable risk of user error. Web designers need to consider two issues related to novice user problems:

  • Designers of sites for the open Internet should remember that most users will be novice users with respect to their site: users move around quite a lot on the Web and they rarely remember navigation conventions and other interaction rules from the last time they visited your site
  • Plans to field applications inside corporate intranets (e.g., human resources apps) must include explicit activities to train novice users in Web use and sufficiently staffed help desks or other outreach programs to help novices get up to speed.
    If as little as 5 percent of your employees can't use an intranet application, then your tech support staff is not going to get any sleep this week

Furthermore, designers of Web software must strive toward utter simplicity in all user interface actions that are exposed to novice users. Intense usability engineering will be necessary to get Internet use to even approximate 100 percent of the population.

The table shows real-life examples of calls to a net-users' tech-support line studied by Sara Kiesler and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University as part of their HomeNet project (Internet home use in Pittsburgh).

User's question to tech support What really was wrong Jakob's comments
I can't log in CAPS LOCK active while typing in password, but this was not noticed because the characters typed by the user were not echoed Classic usability problem caused by lack of feedback. For security reasons, it is probably good to deviate from this general user interface heuristic for a password dialog, but it is not acceptable to violate one of the other heuristics: constructive error messages. In producing the error message, the system should have checked whether the entry was in ALL CAPS and it should have told the user that CAPS LOCK was a likely reason for the error.
Netscape has disappeared from my system The user had reformatted the harddisk after advice from the hardware vendor's tech support line The user probably thought that doing what the hardware vendor recommended would make the entire system good again and not just fix the system-level features. Novice users don't understand the difference between different classes of software and that Web browsing would involve installing additional software. This specific problem also highlights the risks in having the user call multiple help desks and getting advice that does not match the user's complete situation because each desk only knows about part of the user's environment.
My email freezes The user had never installed the modem (didn't know that it was part of the computer) Reveals a fundamental flaw in the user's conceptual model of the system. To be fair to the user, have you ever seen a TV commercial from a computer vendor that shows the happy buyer installing a modem?
Modem won't dial Someone else was using the telephone One more problem caused by a fundamental error in the user's conceptual model of the system: the user would probably not have complained about not being able to use one of the telephones in the house while another member of the household was on the phone elsewhere in the house, but the user doesn't understand that using the modem is equivalent to making a telephone call. After all, a modem is a computer thing; also it doesn't make any sounds while it is operating so it "clearly" can't have anything to do with telephony.
Application does not launch when icon is double-clicked User had never quit the application in the first place but simply closed its windows; the program does not open a new window if it is already running when double-clicked This is a classic usability problem and should have been fixed in the design of the general system: when an already running application is double-clicked, it should be brought to the foreground, and if it doesn't have any open windows, a new blank document should be opened. Doesn't have anything to do with the Web as such, but can still be enough to make the user think that "the Web doesn't work" .

It is easy to laugh at these examples. Indeed, given that the date of this column is April 1, I need to emphasize that the examples are real [despite the publication date, this article is not an April Fool's joke]: users do indeed behave like this when they are unfamiliar with a system. Furthermore, these users were not particularly stupid: just average people without a lot of computer experience.

Please keep these examples in mind as you develop Web user interfaces. As long as the Internet keeps doubling every year, there will always be 50 percent of the users who have less than a year's experience. Some proportion of your users will have this kind of questions too, unless you design out every last opportunity for making errors.

Using the Internet is like pulling a long chain: if any one link breaks, then the entire venture breaks. Experienced users will know how to look at the various links in the chain; find the broken one; and try various strategies for mending it. Users who don't understand the structure of the chain will simply know that they pulled but didn't get anything. The problem can be the configuration of the user's computer, the modem, busy signals, the ISP, the Internet, the remote website, or unclear or confusing instructions any step of the way. Unless everything works perfectly the novice user will have very little chance of recovery. In the long term, we need to build better self-diagnosing systems that can provide more constructive error messages and easier ways of fixing problems. In the short term, developers of Web solutions for novice users will need to polish their user interfaces until every fleck of dust is gone.


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