Users think differently

Maybe you’ve already knew about the hilarious case of the ReadWriteWeb article Facebook Wants to Be Your One True Login. By a stroke of luck this article became the #1 result for ‘facebook login’ on Google. Immediately after this had happened thousands of Facebook users started to flood the blog, thinking that this was their Facebook login page. They didn’t look at the banner, they didn’t read the post, and the later visitors didn’t read the notification that was put on the website to warn visitors that the blog wasn’t Facebook, they just wanted to login.

When they found the first thing with the words ‘login’ and ‘Facebook’ in it they pressed it and ended up in the comment section. There are now hundreds of comments of angry and frustrated users demanding the old Facebook back with the use of Caps Lock and ugly language.

This generated a lot of attention from others blogs and even the Süddeutschen Zeitung wrote an article about it. The initial reaction of many people — including mine — was one of disdain; how could those idiots be so stupid that they would confuse a completely different site — ReadWriteWeb is red, and has got a very busy page layout — for the Facebook login page.

However, when I read the blog post of a ReadWriteWeb editor on the issue, and especially the last section ‘Reminder: If you are Reading this, You Live in a Bubble’:


Given that all of these people logged into Facebook, I managed to check out quite a few of their profiles. These are normal people – often with a basic college education – they could be your neighbors. But for them, the Internet is magic and while might consider Facebook as little more than training wheels for the Internet, for these people it’s just magic – and Facebook is the David Copperfield of the Internet that connects them to their old high-school friends and Petville.

This is something we should take into account when developing an operating system for ‘human beings’. Not all users know what a web browser is and not all people care to know. We cannot change that, instead we have to make Ubuntu easy to use, not only for novices willing to learn, but also for those that don’t want to learn, or cannot learn.

Join the conversation


  1. I find it rather perplexing that people navigate to specific web sites through search engines now. I wonder if this can be traced back to browsers having a search engine as the home page, and resolved through smarter address bars (which most browsers now have) and home pages more like Chrome’s New Tab Page?

    1. That is indeed the most likely cause. However, those features are also there because there is demand for them; the most often used search terms are website names, or even webste URLs!

      This could be explained by the famous Google Chrome video in which the reporter asks random passers-by at Times Square what they think a web browser is. Most of them confuse it with a search engine. But it’s probably also laziness. Searching for a website doesn’t have the risk of landing on a ad-ridden typo of the domain you’re looking for.

  2. "This is something we should take into account when developing an operating system for ‘human beings’. Not all users know what a web browser is and not all people care to know. We cannot change that, instead we have to make Ubuntu easy to use, not only for novices willing to learn, but also for those that don’t want to learn, or cannot learn."

    I couldn't agree more. The more thoroughly everybody developing Ubuntu understand this the more successful Ubuntu will be. I think it's essential to have "normal people" to test Ubuntu under observation as much as possible to find out what's difficult for them, as most of the developers (who are advanced computer users themselves) understandably aren't able to step into the shoes of a novice.

  3. Easy to use … training wheels might help a beginner with riding a bicycle, but will be a hindrance to a trained person.

    “Easy to use” is so easy to say, but what does it really say? Easy for whom, in what context, to achieve what?

    I think what really is called for is a very conscious approach to the knowledge a user needs for a specific task. Try to reduce the amount of knowledge required. Try to put knowledge into the system. Offer information the user needs for informed decisions right in place.

    There’s a lot of things the really ignorant users, who refuse to learn or are not able to, will never be able to accomplish, no matter what the developers/designers do.

  4. I think one of the main problem is that a lot of non-technical people don’t understand how the Internet and computers work in general. How well educated they are is irrelevant: I can see it with my mum who has a college education and spent her whole working life doing advanced research in physiology; when she’s in front of her computer, she feels lost. So, for those people, the only way to learn how to use their computer is to learn things by heart: click on that icon to get to email, do that set of steps to login to Facebook, etc. So if they have successfully used a given method to do something for a long time, they get very confused when it doesn’t work anymore because they don’t understand why.

    So let’s deconstruct how users could get to that confused situation. When they start their browsers, they are faced with the home page, which usually has a prominent search box inside. The address box is lost on top of the screen, inside the browser’s chrome and looks full of strange voodoo like “http://” and suchlike so it’s probably something technical that they don’t want to mess up by typing in it. They tried it before and it came back with something ugly that said “404 page not found” or something like this, they thought they had broken something and don’t want to do it anymore.

    They heard about this Facebook thing and want an account so they type “facebook” in the search box and lo and behold, they get there. They create an account, a password and such and it tells them that they can now login. So the next time they start their browser they think that they want to login to their Facebook page.So they type “facebook login” in the search box and lo and behold they get to the correct page where they log in. Now that they successfully got to Facebook, that procedure is kept as “how to login to Facebook” in their list of common tasks. They do it every time. And one day, the computer behaves differently: they end up on this weird red web page they never heard of before. Panic ensues. They don’t understand why the steps they’ve used every time until now don’t work anymore.

    In practice, this is very similar to the person who goes to the shops by bus every day and knows to alight at the 10th stop to go to the shop she wants. The day there is a diversion and the 10th stop is not where it used to be, she’s lost. The problem here is to use “10th stop” as the signal to alight rather than the name of the stop. For some people, using “10th stop” might be the only way to use the bus system, such as they have bad eyesight, they are in a country where they can’t read the language, they don’t understand the bus routes, etc.

    From our point of view, what happens is that, as experienced computer users, we understand what is happening and are able to identify when the procedure we use doesn’t do what we expect. We understand that the immutable piece of information is the name of the web site, not its ranking in Google.

    So, to improve user interfaces, we need to understand what are the assumptions we make when we use the interface, understand all the paths that could lead to the same result and which ones are resilient to change, which ones are not, and direct the user in following the former ones. This is why a home page like Opera has where you see a search box as well as a preview of the 9 sites you use most frequently is a great usability improvement: it directs the user towards a procedure that is more resilient to change: they see a picture of Facebook in their home page so they click on it thus requesting the site by name, irrespective of its ranking in Google.

    Now you could say “but why don’t they just bookmark the sites they use regularly?” First because they don’t understand that what’s important is the name so they don’t even think of bookmarking it. Second, because the bookmarking procedure is lost behind a single word in the browser menu and they never use the browser menu anyway (a browser is an application where you seldom need to use the menu bar, even as a seasoned user: just try to think when was the last time you used the menu in your browser, other than to add a bookmark). So in addition to the above, in order to improve usability, you need to ensure that the change resilient procedure to do something is available in a part of the application chrome that is used regularly, even by novice users.

  5. I was immediately reminded of the Google Chrome team’s ‘What is a browser?’ video. Its clearly been edited, but it also underscores the fact that users dont understand the tools they’re using. Nor do they want to understand. They just want to do stuff.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.