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I'm a tech genre author, and have already published one book on Android development. However, this book was focused more on the developer of the apps, than the user.

Now I'm working on my second book, which is on app UI. In this book, there is a lot of focus on the usability of the apps, making it as easy as possible for the end user to accomplish the task.

Among developers, you can frequently find statements in casual chats saying stuff like users are stupid, if your software is idiot proof, a better idiot will be its user etc, all basically saying that users do not think the way we do, and what might be blindingly obvious to us, is not so obvious to them.

I'm asking if it's acceptable to say things like the following in a proper printed book:

Users are stupid/dumb/something. You need to position your UI elements in such a way that it is impossible to miss, and make its function so clear that even the dumbest user cannot fail to understand it.

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If Apple can get away calling their users inept and foolish why can't you? –  WernerCD Sep 23 '12 at 14:20
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Because I'm not a multibillion dollar company with a religious fan following :P –  Raghav Sood Sep 23 '12 at 14:25
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Developers are stupid, not users. Developers are the ones with the tendency to have machined their thinking states into requiring everyone around us to believe our perspective of the world is the "truth". –  Blessed Geek Sep 23 '12 at 20:19
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While you're at it, please make sure to not make such mistakes like writing "it's" when you mean "its". I work as a software developer myself, and English is not my native language, and that kind of linguistical errors really annoys me because they make me backtrack a few words with a "'make it is function so clear'?!". –  Michael Kjörling Sep 25 '12 at 11:40
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If you do decide to call your audience's users stupid, you could do it much more compassionately: your users probably aren't stupid, but sometimes it helps to assume they are. I still disagree with this sentence though. I think it's far more important and useful to just emphasise the other point you mention: users do not think the way developers do. –  naught101 Oct 1 '12 at 4:09
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14 Answers 14

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No, users are not stupid, it's usually the designers that are. A good UI requires a solid understanding of HCI (Human Computer Interaction) concepts, which range from understanding the target audience, to cognitive load theory.

You might be able to get away with "idiot proof", since it's a cliché. Personally I'd avoid painting the users with a broad brush, simply because you're already shaping your readers idea of their audience, instead of informing them to go out and investigate for themselves.

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Great example: my intelligent coworker who programs computers for a living could not figure out how to set the clock on his car radio. I'm sure the solution was obvious to the designers, but they didn't make it obvious to anyone else. –  Nathan Long Sep 24 '12 at 5:03
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That is a PERFECT example. We had to replace our car stereo five years ago. The model we chose worked fine in the store when well-lit and displayed at eye level, but when we installed it, we realized that it was too far away to read and the buttons were barely marked. It's impossible to see when driving. I still haven't set the clock and I'm never sure how to advance to another station; I just mash buttons until something happens. My husband and I are not idiots. The stereo interface is badly designed. (I do admit we were foolish for choosing that particular stereo.) –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 24 '12 at 10:20
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@Lauren: As I age closer to 50, I'm amazed at how many electronic devices have an array of buttons labeled with a tiny (3-point?) font, often black on black. (I even took a sharpie to the front of my television a year ago.) And when I first grabbed my DVD Recorder's user manual, I figured they had printed it in 10 languages, owing to its thickness. Nope, all English ~ all 118 pages :^\ –  J.R. Sep 24 '12 at 10:43
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@NathanLong, I had the same problem. Finally, my wife solved it by going through every menu and every option till she got the one she wanted. I have an advanced degree in Engineering, she has a liberal arts degree. I feel so ashamed :) –  Shantnu Tiwari Sep 24 '12 at 15:27
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It is one of the things that irritates me, the fact that users are so often considered "dumb". They are not. In many cases, they are more intelligent that the designers, it just may be that their skills are different.

It is better to say that the users are not familiar with the technical issues involved. Or that the best UX solution is to make the front end as clear and straightforward as possible.

It is not about how clever the users are. It is about whether they want to get involved in complex and fancy nerdy stuff, or just get on with their work.

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A user is smart, the users are dumb. Even if everybody understands 99% of your UI, then given 100 people there's a chance that every single element could be misinterpreted by somebody. "The users are dumb" doesn't mean that any individual one of them is stupid, it means that collectively they have the ability to make just about every mistake, distributed between them. –  Phoshi Sep 23 '12 at 14:01
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@Phoshi: Even if your comment is 100% true, it's still "not okay" to say it in a technical book, which is the question. Just because it's right doesn't mean it's not also rude. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 23 '12 at 19:15
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But @Phoshi even if "the users" make every mistake possible, that does not mean they are dumb. It means that the impact of mistakes need to be mitigated, the possibilities of making them should be reduced. The problem is not with the users, but the software, and blaming the users for technical problems is wrong. –  Schroedingers Cat Sep 24 '12 at 10:54
    
@SchroedingersCat: Collectively, they have enough "dumb" to make every mistake, even if it's not concentrated in any one user. The value of calling users dumb isn't in the actual meaning, it's that it'll stick in people's heads. "Your userbase is varied enough to, given enough time, expose every flaw in your UX" isn't as snappy as "Users are dumb", and the latter is more likely to make an impact on somebody and get them to actually change something. –  Phoshi Sep 24 '12 at 21:18
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@Phosi I understand your reasoning, and it might be OK in some circumstances. In this context, I think it puts the blame on the user. In written and published texts, I think it would be better to say "Can this be simplified even more?" "Can you make it easier?" or something like this. It puts the blame for problems where it belongs. –  Schroedingers Cat Sep 26 '12 at 9:18
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There's a problem here: Saying something like, "users are stupid," makes you look ignorant.

As other have said, the fault isn't always with the user; sometimes, a product is poorly designed. And, even though some users will search frantically for the "ANY" key, many other users are proficient, not dumb.

I realize you mean the statement tongue-in-cheek, but you risk coming across as shallow if you state it in such simplistic terms.

I'd recommend:

You need to position your UI elements in such a way that it is impossible to miss, and make its function so clear that even the most novice users won't fail to understand it.

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That's a very good way to put it. We were all novices at some point. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 24 '12 at 10:22
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Nothing to do with intelligence

I would instead write something like this.

You should try to make it obvious how to use your app, recognizing that it is there to serve the user. Imagine a brain surgeon trying to use Skype to consult with a colleague. This user has limited time and attention. She does not want to spend 30 seconds figuring out how to place a call. She has plenty of non-obvious questions to consider, and doesn't want "how do I use this?" to be one of them.

Making your app intuitive will make it a pleasure to use, and will keep your users coming back to spend their valuable time using your product.

There are limits to how easy you can make something. A surgeon's computerized tools will inherently require expertise, and the surgeon will be willing to invest time learning them. But even these tools shouldn't present unnecessary difficulty, and should let the surgeon focus mainly on the surgery and not on the tools.

The goal of good UI is to get out of the way and help the user do a task.

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No, it's not okay. Why not simply give your advice as something to make an app great because its visual appeal and intuitiveness make it easy to use? As someone with some recent experience in an HCI/UI design group, as well as lifelong experience as a user of technology, I think it is the developer's job to make a great UI so the user can spend less time navigating and more time doing. People should be used to seamless design as the expected norm, not just something done to humor them.

I'd also like to point out that things "blindingly obvious" to a developer are only so because they made the thing; it might not be so obvious to another developer unfamiliar with the code. Think of UI design as retail; the customer is always right. :)

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I sympathize with the sentiment, but no, you can't use "black humor" and "shop talk" in a book like that. Such comments have to be kept in-house and preferably not written down. We all complain about horrible clients and idiots at the DMV and so on, but you shouldn't actually codify that into written advice.

Users as a group are too diverse to call them all stupid. Any one of your users is expert in something which you as a designer/programmer won't understand, and the user could call you "stupid" for not grasping something which seems "obvious" in his/her field.

Your goal is to make the end result easy for any user, no matter the technical background, to understand. That does require a lot of work on your part (and the part of your readers). If you object to the idea that part of your job is to make things easier for someone else, you should change jobs.

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I don't think calling users as a general group stupid is appropriate in a development book. It would be appropriate in places where developers or customer-service reps vent to each other and try to top each other's "who's had to help the biggest idiot?" stories.

It's also not really relevant to the point you're making. Users might have any number of reasons for not noticing a feature that the developer thinks is obvious: they're in a hurry to finish a task, they have visual problems the developer didn't account for, they're not familiar with standard symbols or conventions, etc. Making things clear will help all those groups of people, whether they're smart or dumb.

Another problem with "Users are dumb" is that it can breed an attitude of resentment and condescension, rather than the idea that your job is to help the user accomplish a task or do something fun.

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Users are not dumb; they are busy, and their attention is on things other than using your software.

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I would say that yes, it is acceptable. Obviously it's an oversimplification, and the average user of any particular Android app will be approximately as intelligent as the average human being. However, if you don't feel that you need to go into the rationale behind Don't Make Me Think simple design philosophies, then you may find "users are stupid" to be an effective shorthand.

I highly doubt you will cause much offence to your readers with such shorthands, though some may find them unconvincing.

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Well it is clearly an insult. So, if your book is supposed to have users as a target group, then it might not be wise to insult them.

Also, to conclude from someone's trouble finding an icon somewhere (or similar struggles) that this person would be stupid... well, this does not make you look so bright either (if I may say so.).

You could, however, make an allusion, something more implicit that lets the reader conjecture your point of view, without directly insulting the average book reader. People that are then more 'on your side' will get what you mean and might smile to themselves and the usual - as you might say 'stupid' - reader does not even realize what you mean, and thus, does not feel insulted.

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It's completely your decision, and the decision you make will help contribute to your writing style (which is why some writers are successful and some are not). So, therefore, you're asking for an opinion on writing styles and what decision we would make.

Mine is that you don't resort to this approach of establishing a light-hearted way of making the point that software should be developed with simplicity in mind. It's almost insulting and certainly shows a lack of imagination.

Also take into consideration the fact that, one day, you may choose to go down the avenue of writing for users of apps - I'd imagine it's not a good business move to unnecessarily call potential customers idiots.

Look at the reaction in this thread - that should be enough of an indication that calling users 'dumb' and 'idiots' can annoy people.

By you asking this initial question - it's almost as if you want to take this approach - in which case, I don't like your writing style at all and would think of it as less articulate than most successful technical evangelists.

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Please write in whatever style is necessary to get the information across in a memorable way.

Please write in a way that makes the reader actually smarter, even if it makes you sound a little silly rather "intelligent" or "professional". ( a, b )

Some of my favorite authors occasionally call users "stupid" ( c ).

My users generally are pre-occupied with something else, or are stressed by time pressures, or have not yet learned or have forgotten what I think are some of the niftiest parts of my application.

It's quite all right to remind me that every user has occasional mental glitches, and it's my responsibility to make sure such momentary awkwardness doesn't lead to something horrible, like erasing a hard drive or leaking a credit-card number to the bad guys.

It's also quite all right to remind me that all humans can keep only a finite number of things in their heads at any one time, so I need to design a system that works even when my users are unable to give it their full attention.

On the other hand, if you tell me I can blame the mistakes my users make entirely on those users, and it's OK to do nothing to help them, you are doing them and me a disservice.

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Among developers, you can frequently find statements in casual chats saying stuff like users are stupid, if your software is idiot proof, a better idiot will be its user etc, all basically saying that users do not think the way we do, and what might be blindingly obvious to us, is not so obvious to them.

"Users are stupid" is a pernicious attitude that many software developers have, and the world would be a better place if it could be eliminated. (For what it's worth, I've worked as a software engineer; I have a Ph.D. in computer science; and I now do research in the area of human-computer interaction. I've seen this attitude before.)

Back to business with an analogy: I've had to deal with medical doctors lately, on the patient side, and it's relatively easy to tell whether a doctor has a similar attitude: "Patients are stupid." How do you think our interaction worked? Not as well as it might have. Ditto car mechanics, lawyers, accountants, and anyone with specialized expertise. Some software developers seem to mistake inexperience or ignorance or lack of interest for stupidity. "I can program and you can't--you must be stupid." That sound ridiculous, just as it should.

I think it's a bad idea to encourage your readers to think of the users of their software as being stupid. It's not true, and in the end it will make it harder for them to take the user's perspective when building their systems.

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It is never good practice to insult readers, consumers. If you write for pay, they write your paychecks.

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The OP isn't suggesting to insult the reader, but rather is asking about "insulting" the reader's (programmer's) target audience (users). –  Michael Kjörling Sep 26 '12 at 12:13
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