Designing for Stupid Users

I just demonstrated how stupid users can affect the success of a software rollout because I was a stupid user.

We recently had to install a new VPN client. And being a know-it-all, I quickly scanned the directions and launched into the installation. Which immediately failed.I didn’t read the instructions. 

No surprise—I’m a guy and it’s our job to NOT read directions, right?

The VPN client install was actually the installation of two programs, the VPN client and then a patch. We all got two emails that looked very similar, with the installer file name in large font in each (that had the same name followed by a letter & number identifier), and then the instruction email with the instructions attached.
I looked through the instructions in the attached file, said, “Oh yeah, simple InstallShield Wizard,” then opened the most recent email and double-clicked the file name in very large font and launched the installer. And promptly got an error message.

After being referred to the directions annoyingly by IT and told to enter a ticket as specified in the directions, I scanned through the whole set of instructions. I discovered that there was a sequence of the two installers. Ohhhhh!!!!! 

Then when I failed the install again I read the descriptions and discovered there was a screen where I entered the wrong info.

What did I learn? In today’s world, computer users don’t read details. Us users visually scan titles, look at pictures, look for key words, look at large or cool text/fonts and notice steps that are simply and clearly laid out.

Looking at this from a product planning standpoint, what were the failures?

First and foremost, and this is a no-brainer, a two-step installation process is a recipe for disaster. Why does a program require two installers??? The remedy: Instead of a patch after installing, make an up-to-date installer.

Second, while the detailed instructions went through both installers in sequence, the two-step installation process wasn’t identified in the installer emails nor in the beginning of the directions. The remedy:

  1. Clearly state in the beginning of the directions in large font that there are two installations and they must be done in sequence.
  2. Each installer email says clearly, “Install this file FIRST” or “Install this file SECOND.”

Even I would have a hard time screwing that up.

Third: Instead of a paragraph describing what to enter, use a bullet list or numbered list. For example:

“You must enter:

  1. Organization name: <Company name>
  2. User name: your email prefix (example: johnj, omitting “”)
  3. Password: your computer login password”

That was the paragraph I didn’t read completely because the content was written in one long paragraph.

Also on this third point, the directions had the screen described above displayed, which is a very good thing. Even better would be red arrows pointing to each field with the appropriate number at the arrow tail (1, 2, 3), with the numbers corresponding to the numbered list. It is obvious at a glance that specific info needs to be entered where the arrow is pointing and I have to look at the list to find out what I need to enter.

The short story is that directions need to be visual. Think IKEA furniture instructions. Pretty much anybody can assemble IKEA furniture by scanning the directions. Can you imagine trying to assemble IKEA furniture with written directions?

How does this impact viral growth? The harder it is to install and use the software, the more likely the user will give up and not use it. The easier to install and use, the more likely it will be used, the more likely the user will mention it to others, the more likely lots and lots of people will install and use it.

You’ve got to design the UI for stupid users. Even the smartest of us can become a stupid user and get fed up. If a genius like me who is computer-literate (more or less!) can become a stupid user, how likely is the average Joe or Jane going to act like a stupid user?

It is a lot harder to make software and directions dirt simple. But it’s effort well invested, as the ease of use has a big impact on viral growth.


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