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Why New Tech Can't Please Everyone

Why it's nearly impossible to design new tech that will please everyone
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Credit: Thomas Fuchs

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At a recent party, a man was telling me about something that had happened at his nine-year-old's elementary school. Apparently the teacher was having trouble getting his laptop to work with a projector. In the end, a kid—a kid, mind you—stood up, walked to the front of the classroom and solved the problem.

“Can you believe it?” this guy concluded. “We've reached the point where the students know more than the teachers!”

I laughed politely, but I thought it was one of the dumbest anecdotes I had heard in years. The young knowing more about tech than their parents? Who hasn't heard that old trope a trillion times? This is surprising?

I forgot all about that exchange until I posted a how-to article recently, a step-by-step guide to PC hard-drive maintenance (defragmenting, cleaning, and so on). In the comments for the article, scorn and ridicule rained down. “I've only been doing that since Windows XP,” said one commenter (that is, 2001). “What kind of moron needs an article to show him how?”

A lot of morons, it would seem; it was our most shared article of the week.

We recognize and name many of our demographic tribes: liberal and conservative, wealthy and poor, gay and straight. We classify ourselves that way, we watch out for oppression against one group or another, we pass laws to ensure equal treatment. But when will we recognize the existence of the two different types of technical consumers—the Knows and the Know-Nots?

Over and over again, I run into products that have been tacitly designed for either group. The creators have a mental picture of a product's audience and the users' technical experience. You can tell from terminology, the amount of detail in the instructions, the number of steps required to accomplish anything.

Unfortunately, there is no one type of tech consumer. Someone winds up unhappy. If the design and interface are too technical, novices feel incompetent, shut out and stupid; if the experience is too simple, tech geeks feel insulted and talked down to.

The first step in addressing these problems is acknowledging that there are two groups (okay, a wide spectrum) in the tech audience. The publishers of the For Dummies books have known about one end for years. They have not only marketed directly to the Know-Nots, but (equally important) they have also clearly labeled their products that way. The makers of the Jitterbug phone for older consumers—big buttons, large type, extra volume—don't pretend to be selling to everyone, either.

And on the advanced end of the spectrum—well, you don't see Oracle, SAP and Salesforce systems marketed to folks who only use simple applications.

Exactly. The real frustrations arise when products are marketed to everyone. Microsoft Word gives millions an inferiority complex, whereas others rebel at their lack of control over the program. Superusers are frustrated by the iPhone's lack of customizability, whereas first timers are overwhelmed by the options. Even cameras wind up alienating opposite groups.

Yes, it is hard to design a tech product that works equally well for everyone. Remember Office 2003? It featured menus that collapsed, hiding commands to present a simpler face. With another click, you could expand the menus to their full majesty.

It was a flop. It was impossible to learn the software because the menu commands were never in the same place twice.

Apple once designed a help system with animated Sharpies drawing red circles around things on the screen that you were supposed to click. Nobody used it. (Nobody knew it was there.)

So, yes, it's a difficult art. But it can be done. When something powerful is designed elegantly, neither novices nor power users complain. The Nest thermostat. Fitness-tracking wristbands. Google searches.

The world will always need products that are clearly designed for people at the ends of the technical spectrum, and that's fine—as long as they are labeled that way (the products, not the people).

In the meantime, there's another step that we all can take to relieve some of the technical-level frustration: Quit judging. We were all Know-Nots once.

This article was originally published with the title "The Two Tribes of Technology."

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