The Internet, and Understanding Users

October 9, 2003 10:17 AM

One of my favourite cautionary tales about the Internet, and the assumptions nerds like myself make about it, comes from when I was working for an ISP.

The web-pages for this ISP were first put together in 1995 and not really changed substantially since. For a company that, at the time, was trying to sell web design services, this wasn't really a very good look. Eventually, Tom was given the job of redesigning them from scratch.

Quite a bit of attention was paid to the information design of the site. The ISP's installation pack set the site front page as the user's homepage, so most of our users were going to see this page every day they logged in.

One of the things the old site had was a "Search engines" page. This page was a simple list of links to each major search-engine via a centred column of their logos. It was really quite ugly and we weren't really sure of its utility: too many choices, not enough context. A new user coming to the page would have no idea which they should click on or why. So we decided to scrap it. As a replacement, Tom wrote a search-box for the site's front page that could be used against any of the previously listed search-engines, with whichever one we thought was best at the time (this may have been long enough ago that HotBot was the winner) being the default choice.

Eventually, the site went live. We got lots of compliments about the design. And we got lots of complaints about the missing search-page. The complaints were inevitably from people who had been with the ISP more than six months, and they said with one strong voice: "HEY! I can't find Yahoo any more!"

This is when I realised how little the average user knows about using the World Wide Web. We had all assumed that the search-engine page was there for new users. Once somebody had found an engine they liked, they would bookmark it or remember its URL. We were completely wrong. Some of the people complaining had been regularly using the Internet for years. All of them had been using it long enough to complain when Yahoo! went missing. And all of them had learned this, and only this way of finding their favourite site:

  1. Open Netscape
  2. Click on "Search Engines"
  3. Click on Yahoo

URLs. Bookmarks. Changing your homepage. All of these things were voodoo. There was just Netscape, which you open, and you go clicky-clicky until you get where you want.

I like to keep this story floating somewhere in the back my head. It's my own little reality-check. Needless to say, we re-introduced the search-engines page rather quickly.


I'm often *very* surprised by the usage patterns of non-techies and their computers. There's so much clicky-clicky through rote-learned patterns, and it amazes me. I've met quite a few people and relatives who just learned sequences to follow, and never explore an interface for fear of breaking something or getting lost.

Come to think of it, Alan Cooper tells a parallel story in "About Face" about users and file dialogs. I have experienced this one several times first-hand.

Users would save all their files in whichever directory the save dialog first dumped them in. If someone more cluey uses the computer and saves a file elsewhere, changing that default, the original users couldn't find their files without assistance.

Actually, just resizing a window for a user could cause big problems, since that window might just cover an icon on the desktop that they used, which is "gone". So they call someone for help.

There are lots of similar situations out there, and it is easy to laugh at users like this, but once we realize that a vast number of users are like that it is easy to understand the importance of good UI design. However, UI gurus often seem to forget the educational bit, and this is what gives me the creeps. They preach that user interfaces should be easy to understand so people automatically know (and recognize) how to use the system. But come on - who in their right mind actually think applications today are self-explanatory? And what good does a good UI design do when it only takes into account the successful scenarios?

Novice computer users should realize:
* Computers and applications are complicated
* If you are going to use computers and applications, you should take time to educate yourself, it will benefit you in the long run
* When learning new things, try to understand the "why", not only the "how".

My own twin sister, who is a very smart person (she supported herself while getting her PhD by analyzing statistics for other psychology majors) didn't realize there were other ways of getting to web sites. She was one of the ones who opened the browser, clicked to Yahoo, etc.

I discovered this in a conversation where I gave her a URL, and she didn't understand why a URL was useful. She needed to know how to click through yahoo to it. I told her to put the URL in the address bar. "What address bar?". I hadn't even realized you could hide the address bar, she didn't realize it even existed.

Also, you sometimes have to fight these things one issue at a time. She recently complained that my site looked really bad. I asked what browser she was using. "Netscape 4.7". Holy cow! Get this woman a new browser stat! We geeks will upgrade on principle, or to get new features, but real users won't change anything unless it's broken to begin with (probably a better approach, actually).

haha yes I will always remember this, what was most remarkable was the managing director of the company had the same complaint, he found the old search engine page much easier to use :/
The technicians Ivory Tower.
I've found the old search page on
and the old site here;
so much better than the site they are using now, even if very outdated =D
metacrawler, wow, it's hard the period between yahoo and google

Heh. All hail the Wayback machine.

'Does it come with the Internet?'

I think that's one of my most hated questions. AOL is partially to blame as they ensconce their users in a closed-in environment. People don't even know that they connect to the Internet via AOL and use a different browser.


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