Can Grandma Use Your Website?

A few weekends ago I made the trip to grandmas for some nice rest and relaxation. On the way over I loaded some overdue podcasts onto my iPod for some road trip enjoyment. One of these podcast’s was Userability # 3 the guest on the show asked about interactions that we become numb to in using the computer so frequently. I found the podcast interesting and a great reminder that we can’t assume anything about our users.

I didn’t realize how quickly this lesson would be reiterated to me again. The next day, grandma asked me to help her with some issues in her email. Now keep in mind grandma’s been on email as long as the rest of us, she’s not a newbie to the concept. On the same token, she works on her Inspiron Dell laptop from a retirement community center where not many other people use computers. Therefore she has very little social influence in learning the advancements of interactions over time. So while she is up to date in a sense and a regular user, she certainly not an “advanced” user or “explorer”.

…she has very little social influence in learning the advancements of interactions over time.

While watching her stumble through her mail, and have difficulty with the mouse, constantly moving between mail she didn’t want and the “X” button in the tool bar, I asked her why she didn’t just hit “Delete” on the keyboard. “Oh”, she says, “I never knew you could do that”. The same responses come after I show her how to “Drag and Drop”, how to “Copy and Paste” and how to turn on the ReadingPane in her email. She had no knowledge of these shortcuts that most of us use on a daily bases. She only knew the  standard “long way” of every process.

So why was I surprised when she didn’t know the shortcuts? She does have 3 “techies” in the family, but these are things we take for granted, and assume everyone knows. Things that we forget others don’t know, and that we learned ourselves through exploration and social interaction with other  friends, or at the office. Grandma has no one on a computer next to her saying “Hey, check out this cool new thing you can do.” So the technology just evolves around her, and she continues on in the way she was originally shown. These shortcuts have nothing to do with intelligence, but a lack of instruction and the evidence required for self-discovery.

…with out proper instruction these terms may not be self-evident

The highpoint for me was when I looked at her outlook list and informed her that she had a “Draft”. I wondered if she was aware that the email hadn’t sent yet. When I told her about the “draft” she informed me “Well, …the window is open”. It took me a minute of looking at the computer  screen before I realized what she was talking about. But when I followed her eyes, I saw that she looked at the window we were sitting next to. She only naturally assumed I was talking about a draft of wind, as she had no concept of associating that word with her Outlook email. After I explained it to her we had a nice little laugh and she said “Oh Lauren, how am I supposed to know these things?”

It was a good reminder for me. We try to reach out to users mental models by with familiar terms, yet with out proper instruction these terms may not necessarily be self-evident in the context of the computer where people almost expect things to work differently than in the real-world.

Now while grandma is probably not the typical persona for most websites, she still is a frequent user. My grandma could very well come to your website, how do you think she would fare? I hope this is a good reminder to everyone about the unequivocal value of usability testing and instruction aids for new users. It doesn’t have to be a big production, but you can gain immense value from just watching people use your site or application in the way they perceive it’s meant to be used.