Does your computer make you feel stupid?

15 Jul 2017

Computer literacy class for senior citizens. Image: futurewalk/Shutterstock

UX consultant Gareth Dunlop discusses computer literacy and the generation game.

Within my wider family circle, no one quite knows what I do for a living, and the closest my braver relatives ever venture is: ‘Gareth does something to do with computers’. I don’t have the nerve to tell them that I haven’t written a line of software code in anger since 1999 and that my early retirement from the programming profession was a source of great relief to those still in it.

As a result of this, I am occasionally called upon by kith and kin for general IT support. Such an occupation is strictly death or glory, as I leave each individual venture either as a prince (some kind of computer-whisperer) or a pauper (clueless bluffer), but nothing in between. As long as turning it off and turning it back on again continues to bear fruit, my win to loss ratio will remain acceptable.

‘Customers right across the spectrum have been empowered by the world’s most powerful digital products to get stuff done online’

From time to time, my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to help a relative with a website problem. This problem is typically buying a flight, arranging accommodation, checking in for a flight or printing out a boarding pass – you get the picture. Upon acceptance of payment terms (coffee and biscuits), I make a visit and get to work. Usually, I have made some form of progress as the coffee arrives and frequently, my relatives, particularly the older ones, feel a little embarrassed by the perceived ease with which I get them sorted out (‘I just can’t do it, I’m stupid, I’m stupid’).

When I hear this, two things strike me. The first is how much less stupid my relation would feel if the person who had designed the check-out system, the boarding-pass process or the hotel-booking system had spent just half an hour in my uncle’s living room, or my aunt’s study, observing their needs, understanding their questions and relating to their vocabulary before designing the system.

My second observation, however, is more striking and commercially relevant.

Allow me to illustrate it by referring to a well-known cartoon called What’s Up With These Grades?, which involves a child, two parents and a teacher. In 1969, the two parents are asking the sheepish-looking child, ‘What’s up with these grades?’, whereas in 2009, the two parents standing beside their smug-looking child are asking the teacher, ‘What’s up with these grades?’

Every year, Fathom conducts around 200 usability tests for organisations of all shapes and sizes, and for users of varying ages, genders, interests and socio-economic groups. The websites and software that we test often elicit very different emotions and responses across their user base; sometimes the product is very usable and pleases the user, and other times it is virtually unusable and make the user feel angry or stupid.

And, among the younger users who we test in particular, when a website or piece of software makes them feel stupid, we notice a reaction very different to an aggravated aunt or upset uncle. Their response isn’t, ‘I just can’t do it, I’m stupid, I’m stupid’, but rather, ‘I just can’t do it, they’re stupid, they’re stupid’.

Their reaction reflects their unspoken belief that if Amazon can make them feel smart and Google can make them feel smart and can make them feel smart, then, if they feel stupid, the problem must lie somewhere other than with themselves.

Customers right across the spectrum have been empowered by the world’s most powerful digital products to get stuff done online. Government Digital Service (GDS), or, boasts an 88.8pc satisfaction rating for the services it provides. 78pc of the 800-plus UK public services are accessed online. Its success has gone far beyond digital natives comfortable on their smartphones. It has empowered people across all ages, across all levels of computer knowledge and across socioeconomic barriers.

Do you wish to take digital transformation seriously? Then empower your customers to do business with you in a place they like, at a time they like, on a device they like. GDS and the team remind us that the starting point for this is making sure your customers feel empowered, informed and smart.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Computer literacy class for senior citizens. Image: futurewalk/Shutterstock

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.