The Roberta Scenario

Unlike some rock star developer types who live in an isolated world of geekery and smug coolness amongst their peers, I dwell among actual citizens from time to time.  This gives me perspective of what life is like outside the IT world.  For example, let’s talk about Roberta*.

Because I’m the IT guy in the family and among the family’s circle of friends, I get to be the guy to set up new computers and to look at computers when something goes wrong.  So how could I refuse when my sainted mother shanghaied me and took me to Roberta’s home to set up her new computer.  Roberta is 80 years old, and apparently fell prey to the peer pressure, wherein the peer in this case was her 15 year old grandson.  She decided to join the late 20th century by getting access to e-mail, instant messages, and the World Wide Web.

So I got to fire up her hand-me-down PC.  Upon it, Windows ME ran Internet Explorer 6.0.  I got her DSL hooked in, downloaded an IM client, and managed to find a copy of Norton 2001 to help provide some protection.  Then, I set up her bookmarks to a set of television stations (Discovery, the History Channel, and so on) and National Geographic.  I set her home page to her DSL account dashboard page and explained some basics about e-mail, such as how to send it using the Web interface and what a contact list is.

I showed her how to use the little mouse to move the little arrow.  There, in the corner, watch it move, now see how the arrow turns into a hand, that’s called a link, you click it: that means press the left mouse button.  If you take your hand off of the mouse, you move the arrow a little, so the button does nothing.  Here, try with your hand on the mouse.

I mean, she lacked all of the basics of computer and GUI use that we’ve taken for granted for the last decade, including the vocabulary such as operating system, window, browser, e-mail, application, double-click.  She’d heard some of them, but she had no idea what they were.  To her, Web sites were extensions of things she saw on television.  Browse, Google, Web searches, blogs, and so on.  She’s been online for a couple of weeks, sort of, and when she asks me to add a URL to her bookmarks, she has it written down on a piece of paper as she’s seen it on a product or on television.

When I left her the first time, I realized I had not shown her how to close a window with the little x in the corner; surely enough, when I visited her again, she had 16 instances of IE open on her taskbar, and her underpowered machine was crawling.

What’s my point?  If you’re developing consumer applications or work at an interactive marketing agency, you’d better remember that people like Roberta are your target audience.  Not the people at the next agency who are going to look at your portfolio when you try for the next level of title.  Not your circle of friends where you try to one-up each other in cool things you do.  You’re designing and developing for civilians, and many unsophisticated civilians at that.

* Not her real name because she’s on the Internet now, and I don’t want her to know I’m talking about her.

No Responses to “The Roberta Scenario”

  1. ftdcjp Says:

    Good points here in your last paragraph. I have not yet met a developer who understood these concepts.

  2. The Director Says:

    Let’s not leave designers out of our acrimony. Whenever they do something different and new, particularly when they stray from common visual or interface metaphors, they risk confusing people who lack broad enough experience to know what the heck is going on.


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