Watching Them Struggle

You’ve probably watched somebody who is not technically savvy trying to operate an interface new to them, likely with little success. Maybe that interface was yours. You’ve spent countless hours cutting that thing down to the basics, refining the copy and making everything crystal clear, and yet, you watch with bewilderment as the user before you struggles and stumbles across the screen, doing everything possible to go in circles around the interface element they actually need, which to you seems blindingly obvious.

As I read through Robert Greene’s new book, Mastery, a realization struck me. In the book, Greene explores the process of becoming a master at a particular skill or profession, which, roughly summarized, involves practicing it for so long that everything involved becomes internalized and cross-linked in your brain, which then allows you to use this experience intuitively, rather than consciously. The master feels what’s right even before they have the words to express it.

This is very much what happens to someone we call computer savvy. Having used a computer for a very long time, all the processes involved in operating it have been internalized, have been learned and transferred into the subconscious mind. Presented with a new device or a new user interface, that experience is tapped into intuitively, which allows that person to make sense of the new interface almost instantly, without conscious thought.

Using a computer or browsing the Web is not considered a skill in the same way as playing a piano or painting is. This frames it differently to all the other professional “skills” and makes it seem like no big deal to those who do it on a regular basis. We talk about merely using software, not operating it. Overly technical software would fall into the skills category, but not the basic consumer apps or websites. Our familiarity with countless varieties of software and hardware makes us blind to just how much more we know and are used to. Since we’ve internalized all the little details and know everything intuitively, we don’t think about them. Indeed, we cannot think about them because just like tying a shoelace we don’t consciously think through the steps of the process, we go through it intuitively.

Of course, the fact that a technically savvy user might figure out a user interface faster is no revelation, what interests me is the extent to which we may be underestimating the effects of being familiar with a variety of user interfaces. We take for granted that we’ve spent years internalizing countless interfaces, learning their every nuance, pattern and variation, to the point that all this experience comes together as a coherent whole and used intuitively, without conscious thought. We take this for granted because we don’t consciously register that we know all of this. New interfaces just appear simple to us, self explanatory even.

All the myriad of tiny little details are there in our subconscious: all the countless varieties of buttons, tabs, links, windows, panes and so on, all wired together and ready to be called whenever we need to tap into this experience. We have a feel for all of that. We don’t know how much is there because unlike learning how to tie a shoelace, we never acquired this experience through a formal process – i.e. consciously noting that now you’re going to learn something – we’ve got it through daily use.

This is what makes the experience of watching somebody who isn’t technically savvy so strange and bewildering. The truth is that the interface that seems so simple is only so simple to us, to somebody with countless hours of experience of using such things. Our vantage point has changed so gradually that we never noticed any movement, and it has moved so far that we no longer remember where we began. Indeed, even consciously recognizing this fact doesn’t reveal the extent of the differences to us. Recognizing that we’re probably grossly underestimating our experience makes watching somebody struggle with a “simple” interface a lot less excruciating and a lot more sense.