By Frank Spillers

Average_userUser advocacy is one of the central goals of usability. User advocacy can be defined as the process an IT professional (with an interest in user experience) goes through in re-sensitizing herself to the world of the "average user".

Usability expert reviews are largely an exercise in user advocacy, in addition to an analysis of known usability issues and problems based on knowledge of User Interface Style Guide abnormalities.

So. why do we forget about the "average user" so fast?

We all were average users at one point. We still are when it comes to working with a new program, product or website. The difference between us (IT professionals) and the average user is that we have learned sophisticated coping strategies for figuring out software and the web.

Average users don't care how a program works anymore than you care about how a radio transmits signal while you listen to it or how plants metabolize sunshine to remain green when you look at them.

Average users don't stop to think about how the programmer may have designed a system, how the database is working (as they wait for the round-trip of data back to user interface) or what an icon or screen behavior means. The average user doesn't know, doesn't want to know and has expectations that technology will work "as advertised" and "as expected".

Defining the "average user"

Average User:

  • 1.1  A relative: someone in your family (mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, spouse, partner etc.) or what is often called "general population".
  • 1.2  A person in a developing country: someone with no IT background and/ or no PC exposure in school.
  • 1.3  A literacy-challenged person: someone who is new to or intimidated
    by a keyboard, mouse or to reading and writing in general.
  • 1.4 A non-IT exposed person: a person who has not spent a lot of time
    with technology due to circumstance (an elderly person; a young child;
    a disabled person)
  • 1.5 You? (Do you know all the ins and outs of every program you use?). Please note if you are reading this, "you
    are not the average user".

The "average user test"
(can be performed on any family member that often asks you for help with technology).

1. Ask the person to open an attachment, edit it and then send it back
to you.
(Average users don't understand that this requires selecting a
non-system file area of your hard-drive first; saving it and then
replying with the document as an attachment).

2. Ask the person to take a picture (with a digital camera).
Depending on the usability of the hardware manufacturer, the user might fail to get past transferring the images to the computer. If they figure this out, where they store images on the computer may be the show-stopper (Average users don't understand that a custom location needs to be defined and a novel name needs to be given to this "set of photos").

3. Ask the person to reduce the size or lighten the image and send it to you. Image editing is not layperson-friendly. The Mac OS 10 makes this a little easier than Windows XP but the average user is not using a Mac generally, so we're talking Windows XP. Also the average user is not installing all sorts of photo editing programs to find the "best one". By chance they have installed what was provided with the camera, the printer, or something a friend or relative gave them- or all three. The average user did not install the software on their system with volition.

Rules for playing nicely with your "Average User"
or the Alternative User's Bill of Rights (as originally proposed by  IBM's Dr. Clare-Marie

1. Interaction with system level functions ain't going to happen. This means set-up, installation and all other "Out of Box Experience" (OOBE) aspects need to be considered carefully for average users. Decisions about what and how much of the "back end" administrator functions need to be made with caution. Where possible shelter the average user from "Preferences, Settings, Options" or at least centralize access to and from this area.

2. Customization and personalization behaviors are limited. Instead study default behaviors and spend time getting default functions right (this can not be over-emphasized).

3. Configuration is your average user's worst nightmare.
See my article "Configuration Hell- The Case for the Plug and Play User Experience"

4. Anything not apparent, transparent, obvious, intuitive and explained may be problematic. Anything requiring understanding is not intuitive. Intuitive means it does not require understanding.

To simulate the cognition of the "average user" consume one alcoholic
beverage and then try to focus on work (if you don't drink, sit at your
desk for four hours straight and then try focusing on a new task). That state of distraction, de-focusing and inhibited response is close to how the average user processes your design. Conduct a usability test using the "think aloud protocol" and you'll quickly realize how true (and I hope, funny) this is!

5. Get sober about your technology- on purpose. It's easy to get pulled into the cool value of a technology, harder as a designer to step back and see the bigger business picture or user needs (gained from real  observed user behavior). Usability and user advocacy techniques are not designed to under-value technology, but rather to make technology or specifically user interfaces -subordinate to user interests. User-centered designs historically have out-performed system-centered design.

6. Ignoring the average user can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies. I often hear product managers say "our users are power users" or "if they don't get this, they are not our users". These assumptions are largely self-preserving and seem to counter the usability attitude of "user advocacy". Promote a culture within your team of "Outside-In" design. Stop defending the merits of features and functionality without some independent outside verification from your users.

Remember user advocacy is as much realizing how technology or system-centric your own professional attitudes or behaviours are as much as those of your users.

Best wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS