Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On the Topics of Software, Average Users and User Friendliness

The term "average user" is something you hear thrown around a lot with regards to software. Pro-Linux, on the desktop, people often make claims on why it Linux ready for this "average user" (shoot even I've done it on occasion). There are also those who feel Linux should be pigeon-holed into a server room and on to mobile devices, they will make the exact opposite claim. They say Linux on the desktop isn't ready for this "average user".

My question to you all is:

Who is this "Average User"?

I've often been told I am not one of these "average users" because I create and distribute software. Who is then? Is my brother the level designer an "average user"? Is my fiancée the accountant an "average user"? Is my mother the tutor an "average user"? What exactly is the criteria to be in the group of people so many seem to be trying so desperately to make software for?

Often hand-in-hand with this idea of an "average user" is the concept of "user friendliness". In fact a drive to make our user interfaces even more "user friendly" is what has caused the radical changes in the Gnome desktop (and of course the creation of Unity).

What is "User Friendly"?

From what I can gather, something is only "user friendly" if an "average user" can sit down in front of it and do exactly what they want with zero direction.

Where on earth did this idea come from?

When you first learned algebra - was it expected to be something you could just "figure out" with no guidance? How about learning a language? Science? History?

Why is the standard different for learning software?

Actually, I take that last question back. There are lots of classes for learning about software. I've seen classes for learning how to use Windows, Photoshop, Microsoft Office... the list goes on! Are these pieces of software considered "user friendly" and ready for the "average user" even though we offer classes to learn how to use them? Yep.

Why is the standard different for Linux then?

Some food of thought. Please give me some input on any/all of my questions by dropping a comment below.

~Jeff Hoogland


  1. I think the "avarage user" is my brother, even if it is a great Mechanical Engineer it calls me every time his PC did something that he never seen before, but see it the other way around, every time I heard a weird sound from my car I call him, so am I an avarage user of a different "product" then ? If yes we are all avarage users :)

  2. It's a great set of questions, but I think I have an answer.
    Like it or not, the average user is one who may be looking into switching to Linux from another OS (probably Microsoft Windows) rather than using Linux as a first OS (ever).
    The truth is there are far more avenues for downloading and installing Linux on a computer that likely already has another OS on it (probably Microsoft Windows) than buying a computer with Linux preinstalled. Even those avenues for buying computers with Linux preinstalled are not really advertised on popular TV channels where Microsoft Windows and Apple's Mac OS X computers are advertised, so people who would probably like to switch would have to download and install Linux themselves.
    So really, the point is that the unspoken truth is that the "average user" is the "average Microsoft Windows user". That's why user-friendliness is a big deal; of course it's ridiculous for someone who has had no experience with a computer of any sort to be able to use it without direction. But I think it is reasonable to make a Linux distribution friendly enough for a Microsoft Windows user to be able to use it for the first time without direction.
    That said, your point about computer classes is interesting. I think actually that may be the place to get Linux out there. People who have no preconceived notions about OSs and such would benefit the most from distributions like Ubuntu.
    That's just my 2 cents.
    a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

  3. I'd have to say I agree with PV. The average user, is usually code foe the lowest common denominator. The average user is the person, who with a small amount of direction can perform simple tasks on the computer, possibly moving into more complex arrangements of simple tasks over time. Put simply, they don't want to know anything about the computer other than will it do what I have come to expect a computer to be capable of doing with the least amount of work possible. I think there is also a difference between the average user and the current average Linux user. The average Linux user is passionate about technology enough to try something new because there is a problem with what they are currently using. The average user isn't going to realize that there is a problem with what they are doing.
    As far as user friendly, I'd have to say that Linux is a bit less user friendly in some regards and more user friendly in others. Linux can be harder to deal with in regards to codecs and drivers, especially printers and graphics, so while we may all think our flavor of the week is amazing and can overlook what we consider minor flaws, these things can cause dead stop for average users because they don't even know how to ask to fix it. To them, all they can say is it's broken and that means Linux doesn't work because this would never happen on Windows. Technology scares some people into not liking it. My view of technology is that if we do our job right, it means we'll be taken advantage of until it stops working. People will forget that what they use is hard to program and requires a lot of hard work to accomplish. That is user friendly. As much as I loathe the culture of Apple, they understand this far better than most corporations out today and they can charge a premium for it.

    1. Dunno, a distro like Linux Mint seems to handle codecs and drivers just fine. Hell, codecs are a mess on Windows as well. It is just that some enterprising people have made some really massive installer packages (and your neighborhood geek knows where to download them). As for printers, they appear to have taken a solid turn for the better now that Apple control CUPS. And i find it hilarious that Lexmark, who i have in the past regarded as a shit brand with a very weird Windows driver, appears to have a very Linux friendly attitude. I think the major problem people have is that there is very few boxes with a penguin next to the Windows logo an the half eaten apple. This makes it very hit or miss to grab something off a shelf and bring it home.

  4. I would like to further bifurcate average user

    1)End user - for them PC is a tool to get job done. They are not concerned with FOSS / Proprietary. They are more concerned about it's usability. These people only learn that is needed for their day-2-day tasks like emails, word/ excel and accounting. Not more. Many micro scale business have these kind of people. They have a tunneled vision and their frame of ref makes it difficult to grasp anything new. They are happy with good old XP and do not think about upgrading to win 7. Same with mobile phones. They are a bit uncomfortable with touch screen and smart phones. They simply like tradition keypad and simple menu to browse.

    Enthusiasts: These people like to spend some time on net and like to be self dependent. They can manage to format PC, install apps and troubleshoot to some extend. They embrace new technologies and do not mind spending some time trying it.

    These can be a Linux newbies, who in future may become advanced users. End user will remain end user. Even after 2 years of registering to forums, they hardly have more than 50 posts. This is not the case with enthusiasts. They read forums and try to learn from them.

    Artists or users whose profession depends upon knowledge of particular field. e.g. web designer and image editors, accountants, vb.net programmers. They are apt with their work and in general with PC, but do not know much about fixing issues. They have capacity to learn and spend time for troubleshooting, but only spend time when it is necessary. They too are not much concerned about exploring PCs too much.

    Hard core Programmers: They are nerds who make and break their system. Once they get the taste of Linux, they have found their paradise :)

    This include Geeks (like you). They make programs that make programs

    As you have said, IMO, average users (end users) are the ones who can operate system without referring to any manual. Any OS that passes this test from average users can be considered as User friendly (though geeks may complain about it ;) )

    1. "average users (end users) are the ones who can operate system without referring to any manual"

      By this definition most all users are NOT average users then. I know a good deal of people that need help learning their way around ANY OS. Be it Windows, OSX or Linux.

    2. Sorry. Typing error. replace 'can' by 'cannot'. It changed the whole meaning.

      It should be:

      "average users (end users) are the ones who cannot operate system without referring to any manual. Any OS that passes this test from average users can be considered as User friendly ..."

      Just thought another definition.

      An average user is (should) be the one who does not go / like to go / intend to go 'under-the-hood' of an OS. He / she may be apt in his / her own field. e.g. an accountant or a designer. They are apt with PCs and the related software. That does not mean that they know or intend to know or like to tweak the system.

      An ideal OS is (should) be the one, which can be operated with no or minimal external help or with the help of a manual.

      Defining or categorizing users into any group is difficult. This is the closest definition I can think of myself (end user)

  5. I think the term is all wrong. It should not be "average user" but rather instead "casual user" - that's closer to home, I think. There are a lot of people whose work lives don't involve computing to any great degree - but they do have computers at home, and so they are casual users. These are the people that might find something like Ubuntu with Unity appealing (since its easy to use and navigate). All they pretty much do is surf, email, and fuss around with photos and download music. An "average user", if there is such a thing, would be someone who actually has to sit behind a computer 8 hours a day at work and it is just a tool to get their jobs done (like accounting clerks). They know just enough to navigate from point A to point B to perform the tasks to get their jobs done, but that's about it (I know from experience I am an ERP systems consultant). Beyond the "average user" we have the "hobbyists" and the "professionals". That's just my two cents... :)

    1. "These are the people that might find something like Ubuntu with Unity appealing (since its easy to use and navigate)"

      How do you decided something is easy to use and navigate though? Why is Unity easier than KDE, E17, LXDE, Windows or even OSX?

    2. I've tried many flavor desktops, and some are definitely harder than others to deal with - and I have a foothold in both worlds, Windows (to make a living with the ERP software I consult for) and GNU/Linux (started Linux as a hobby in 2001 and quickly became a passion) - but for my "average users", Unity or even Gnome Shell would appeal to them, as long as they have a traditional menu somewhere to access in addition to the dash. Heck, I even added an app menu to gnome shell for the odd occasion I feel like walking through menus. When I do web meetings with my clients (accounting clerks, controllers, bookkeepers and the like) and have to show them my screen, they are fascinated by both Unity and Gnome Shell (I have different flavors of Ubuntu on different workstations). They will always ask "What's this? This is cool...!!! Its like my phone!" Now, if I happen to have a virtual machine up on my screen that is CLI only, no GUI - then they SERIOUSLY cross their eyes, lol...!!!

  6. I find the "user friendliness" of the fruit phone the most laughable. Every last TV ad they run is a "here is how you use feature X" masking as a feature demonstration.

  7. Could the underlining problem be "technological inertia"?

  8. Your questions are laughably presumptuous. If you want some real answers, do some research into GUI design, instead of pretending like you're the first person to think of those questions.

    1. Your comment is a laughable trolling.

      Never said I was the first person to ask these questions.

    2. The "one size fits all" mentality of trolls, I will never understand it, lol. That's why I use GNU/Linux, the ability to explore, to question and have the freedom to do so. I have often wondered myself who the "target audience" is for this, that and the other distro. Fact of the matter is, one size does NOT fit all, and doesn't need to (although Microsoft would have us believe so). Different distros are aimed at different audiences. Sure, you can make generalities about users,lumping them into vague groups, but that's a dicey proposition. I have a client who has an AP clerk who is 65 years old. The woman runs with everything I tell her, doesn't know the right tech-terms for things, but I never have to show her more than once how to do something, and then she goes beyond that on her own and figures out things that I've seen baffle the younger generation. Is she an "average user", then? Dunno - but she takes the tools given her and finds a way to get the job done faster and better than people less than half her age. Amazing. Grandmother of three, no less... :)

    3. Jeff is thinking is right direction. Whats wrong to think of end user.

      I would say he has a practical approach.

  9. The short answer, in my opinion: The term "average user" is difficult to clearly define, just like spam.

    As long as it's used in a relative sense, the term "average user" will continue to be useful. What do you think?

  10. Interesting.
    Everyone has their own idea of the average user. There has been a lot of focus on it in the past year or and mainly from Linux users, I "blame" that on the Gnome and Unity. The point you made about the software classes is quite strong but those, I believe, are mainly for business type applications while most of us have been focusing on the desktop. On the desktop, I believe it's more about familiarity than any thing else because in my opinion gnome 2 is as easy as gnome 3 and also Linux DE's are as easy as Windows interface. Most "average users" say Windows is easier because 1) they are familiar with it and 2) Microsoft (and Apple) market their stuff so users feel their stuff is better than that thing made by random contributors from all over the world.
    The "average user" IMHO is definitely not the person who is using a computer for the first time (as many think) but is someone who uses a computer just for work and other personal purposes such as using the Internet, watching movies, browsing pictures etc. unlike some of us who like tinkering with the computer (trying out new distros/OS's, unstable software, using the command line and other things) , breaking things in the process, then looking for ways to fix it and then manage to do so.
    Interesting topic though!

    1. I know at least in the US there are a good deal of classes on how to simply us an OS. Not just a specific business application.

    2. Well, I wouldn't know much about the US so you're probably right about that. In my country you'll just get classes for learning stuff like Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Dreamweaver and the like.
      I'm still wondering and confused about this 'average user' as everyone seem to be looking at different types of people.

  11. I have always thought of an average user to be the kind of person that wants to be able to sit down at a computer and with much general ease as possible to be able to do many of the very common things that a lot of people use computers for. A wide and overall general assortment of things like surfing the net, do some word processing, upload and organize photos or vid clips or maybe some very basic editing, watch movies, play a game or two, do homework or chit chat etc. Just an all around general user of computers for general tasks.