Who Are Our Users—Actually?

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Dr. Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist working at Intel. Her keynote at the 2012 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference touched on where she thinks technology is going, who our users actually are, and in what context they use our products.

I can't recommend it highly enough; the whole thing is worth a listen. You can download her keynote as a podcast thanks to the ABC, or watch it on YouTube, though the audio there has a decided echo.

Several of the points she raises directly contradicts the assumptions and conventional wisdom that shape our view of what technology users look like. Contrary to what one might think:

      • The most prolific users of technology are women, not men. What's more, they are women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s—not the much-touted 18-25 demographic.
      • The vast majority of Internet users are outside the United States.
      • In large swaths of the world, people experience the Internet primarily on mobile phones—that are not smartphones.

Too often, we form a mental image of our users that is sterile, ridiculously normative, and just flat-out wrong. We imagine people who are sitting comfortably at well-equipped office desks and using modern, up-to-date computers with excellent Internet connectivity or at least high-end smartphones (if we consider the mobile case at all).

We have their complete attention; they have nothing else to do except interact with our software. They come from the same culture as we do, speak the same language, and have the same level of ability.

Real people are busy, disorganized, multifaceted, and delightfully imperfect. They are trying to cope with an overwhelming number of tasks and unprecedented amounts of information, often using unreliable or suboptimal technology. Ninety-five percent of people are not native speakers of English, 93.5 percent live outside of North America, and 10 percent have a disability.

Our inaccurate mental picture of our users leads to our not properly envisioning the context in which our products are being used. While an application may work well on the desktop, we have many other scenarios to consider.

How does it fare with a user who's trying to use it on the commute to work, with a mobile phone held in one hand and a coffee in the other? Is the app forgiving of errors, like the ones that happen when a curious toddler gets hold of your iPad? Is the text understandable to someone with only a modest command of English? Can it be made large enough for someone with low vision to read?

How can we disabuse ourselves of this image? Dogfooding our products is a good idea where possible, as well as taking a realistic look at how we use technology in all facets of our own lives—at home in the evening, on the commute to work, while traveling, and so on. However, unless we learn about how other human beings use our products, we may only reconfirm our inaccurate perception that everyone uses things the same way we do.

Paul Fratellone found that sending his testers on "field trips" to observe how people actually use the product was an excellent use of their time. However we go about it, we need to make a conscious effort to think about and learn how other people use software and how technology fits into lives that may be very different from our own.

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Rick Scott

Rick Scott is a Canadian philosopher-geek who's profoundly interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. Rick's an incorrigible idealist, an open source contributor, and a staunch believer in testing, universal access, and the hacker ethic. When he's not in front of a computer, you'll find Rick hiking, making cupcakes, or honing his viola technique.