The Internet, and Understanding Users

by Charles Miller on October 9, 2003

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.

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