I’ve spent many years working in IT and am amazed how often you hear a programmer call computer users stupid. Granted, sometimes there are users who for whatever reason are slower to get the hang of it. Or maybe don’t try hard enough.
But if your job is to design systems that people can use, then is it the user who fails if the design is too complex or just not intuitive? Maybe there wasn’t enough training or good documentation. Or maybe the developers missed a few communication steps in the process. It’s at least worth considering that if YOUR users are always stupid!
Working with system users
As a project manager with a functional background, the most successful implementations were those where we had enough time to carefully assess users’ real needs and build an easy-to-use, practical, intuitive GUI (graphical user interface). We also provided clear, simple, user-oriented training sessions and documentation.
The computer user is the customer. And so it’s our job to help them get a system (and implementation) that works for them. And if programmers call computer users stupid and focus on what they don’t know — well, that’s just like when users call development folks stupid for not knowing their end of the business.
To tell you what goes on behind the scenes, basically a lot of name calling goes on without any useful purpose. Remember, many of these users have tedious, mind-numbing tasks that require the system you are designing for them to work like clockwork. Depending on your attitude, you can make their day or add to their hell on earth.
Don’t call computer users stupid
If you’re in a mindset where you see people you work with as “stupid”, then what you really are building is walls, not good systems. And in the end, you will miss the mark. And you’ll miss the true beauty of a fabulous system you could have designed.
Remember … your work is judged by ease of use and performance. Not by how brilliant a technically savvy colleague might think it is. Too many tech folks design for all the cool bells and whistles that help them push their skills to the limit. But that usually is not the best way to design user-friendly systems.
Users know their business and what they need from a system. Systems people know what systems can do and a gazillion ways to get that done. But there is no success unless the system is truly useful to the people who use it every day. That’s why leaving ample time for requirements gathering and for meetings of minds is essential.
What goes on behind-the-scenes
In the best of all worlds, you have functional people like me who serve as interpreters for both sides and make sure there is a meeting of minds. But I will assure you that minds have a better chance of meeting when they stop thinking of each other as idiots.
And yes. The other side thinks that right back at ya. I’ve seen that kind of thinking on both sides and it really does just build walls — as well as crappy systems that need to be reworked later.
Getting past “stupid” in system design
If you start with the assumption that the other person knows things you don’t and that each can gain from the other, you are off to a good start. The best thing you can do is keep asking questions. And reframing the concepts again and again if necessary — just to make sure there is real agreement. Patience really does pay off here.
And if you can get a prototype (model) of the proposed system up quickly, all the better. A user really can’t always understand what you are talking about (or the gorgeous diagrams you show them), even if you think you’re being clear and they think they understand. It’s not their expertise. But a prototype allows users to better see what it is and whether it will meet their needs.
And if at that point they make you go back to the drawing board, rather than seeing them as complete dummies, simply view it as part of the process needed to get to a great result. Keep checking along the way. And keep the design as simple as possible (I like the word “elegant”), while still meeting every requirement of course.
What brilliance goes on in the background really should be transparent to to the user. Also good to remember that whatever you are designing you have to maintain. One more reason for systems designers and computer programmers to KISS — Keep It Simple Stupid!
Helping a “stupid computer user”
Finally, after the system has made it through all phases of development (including “let’s see if I can break it” system testing with real users if possible) — and you also have excellent step-by-step user documentation with good screen shots — you’re ready to go live.
Now it’s time to provide training that covers the basics but doesn’t overwhelm with too many details. Sometimes more than one training is a good idea to really set the learning. And keep the training as close to go-live time as possible. People forget if they aren’t using it.
Include “magic” cheats sheets!
And the last gift you might want to leave them with after the training is a one or two page cheat sheet they can use for daily reminders if needed. These are wonderful. Some people don’t use the system every day and they forget. Not stupid computer users — just cognitive overload from all else they do
Oh … and of course, it’s essential to provide ample friendly customer support from then on. And that might include an easy-to-use knowledge base if at all possible, as well as a database of notes from these calls and other feedback to review for a possible version 2.
There’s nothing more beautiful than having users, one after another, thank you for making the process so pleasant. And the system so easy to use. To me, that’s the real art of great system design. Not the bells and the whistles, but the smiles of the satisfied customers. Who can be very smart if you help them!
[Article updated in 2020]
About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.
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