Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why… Consumer Electronics Sucks

I was pointed to an article today called Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You and it bugged me so much I had to respond at more length than was available in a FaceBook post.Datamation Cover June 15th 1985

The article covers a few topics, some of which I agree with, but the general theme is “you don’t understand  the inner workings of computers and I do, so you’re stupid”. There are (currently) 800 or more comments and growing so I assume it has gained some traction.

It’s written by a Computing teacher who is frustrated by people who come to him for help. I thought it was a teacher’s job to help people learn, but hey, maybe he’s just having a bad day. Unfortunately this guy seems to believe that the reason people don’t understand is, not because the consumer electronics industry generally sucks at User Experience, but because these lazy sods simply refuse to devote their lives to understanding the internal workings of their computers and phones.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a geek in IT for thirty years or more.  I love technology and I love tinkering with the internals of computers, but I’m frankly embarrassed to be associated with the industry sometimes.

I can usually hack my way through a problem because I’m used to the nuances of software and hardware, but if some bewildered soul comes to me and says “The computer is saying Error Code: 0x32C8. What does that mean?”, I’m much more likely to look sheepish on behalf of the whole industry and say “Yeah, it’s not your fault. There’s no possible way you could know that. Let me do some arcane magic now and fix that and let’s pretend you never saw it”. I really feel for people when their computer makes them feel stupid and I need them to realise it’s not their fault.

So here are a few of the points that made me mutter “Bullshit!” under my breath as I flicked through the article this afternoon.

“Do you know where the proxy settings are?”

…a visitor downstairs that needed to get on the school’s WiFi network…. [Large chunk of geek paranoia and resentment skipped here] ‘The Internet’s not working.’ she stated with disdain.

‘Do you know where the proxy settings are?’ I asked, hopefully.

I don’t get a response. I might as well have asked her ‘Can you tell me how to reticulate splines using a hexagonal decode system so that I can build a GUI in VisualBasic and track an IP Address.’

Yes, you might as well have asked that. There is never going to be a time where the phrase “proxy server” should be required in the vocabulary of the average user. There are well defined protocols that completely hide this kind of unnecessary detail so it’s inexcusable to burden users with it.

It took me about ten seconds to find and fill in the proxy settings. I handed back her MacBook and she actually closed Safari and reopened it, rather than just refreshing. [more sarcasm and resentment].

[Slow hand clap] Good for you. Of course, you know there is such a thing as a “proxy setting”, you know what it does, and a likely place to look for it. And it’s your job. Extra points by the way for the snide dig at the user’s perfectly reasonable approach to restarting their browser.

“…kids can’t use general purpose computers, and neither can most of the adults I know”

There are always one or two kids in every cohort that have already picked up programming or web development or can strip a computer down to the bare bones, replace a motherboard, and reinstall an operating system. There are usually a couple of tech-savvy teachers outside the age range I’ve stated, often from the Maths and Science departments who are only ever defeated by their school laptops because they don’t have administrator privileges, but these individuals are rare.

Yep, that’s pretty much the proportions you would expect. There will be a few people who love the technology for its own sake, and virtually everybody else just wants to use it as a tool to actually get shit done. But they can’t. Because the system has popped up yet another dialogue box spewing gibberish from the bowels of the operating system asking them to fix something the software should have figured out for itself.

Saleability Before Useability

A kid puts her hand up in my lesson. ‘My computer won’t switch on.’ she says, with the air of desperation that implies she’s tried every conceivable way of making the thing work. I reach forward and switch on the monitor, and the screen flickers to life, displaying the Windows login screen. She can’t use a computer.

So the kid turned the computer on with the power switch but it wasn’t “on” on, because you have to press another switch? And that makes sense?

My son’s Dell desktop computer has a very cool glossy black case which is appealing in every way except for usability. You see, the designer decided that finding the button to turn on the power or eject a DVD was less important than how cool it looked. So all the buttons are black. On a black background. So they’re invisible.

It reminds me of this scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:


It’s the weird color-scheme that freaks me. Every time you try to operate one of these weird black controls, which are labeled in black on a black background, a small black light lights up in black to let you know you’ve done it!”- Zaphod Beeblebrox


Mobile has killed technical competence. We now all carry around computers that pretend to be mobile phones or tablets.

No we don’t. We carry around mobile phones and tablets. Period. In fact every time you are reminded it is a computer, that’s a usability fail.

Most people don’t even think of their phone as a computer. It’s a device to get quick and easy access to Google.It’s a device that allows us to take photos and post them to Facebook. It’s a device that allows us to play games and post our scores to Twitter.

Yep, it’s a device that gets shit done. Isn’t that fantastic! How does “thinking of it as a computer” enhance that experience?

It’s a device that locks away the file system (or hides it from us). It’s a device that only allows installation of sanitised apps through a regulated app store. It’s a device whose hardware can’t be upgraded or replaced and will be obsolete in a year or two. It’s a device that’s as much a general purpose computer as the Fisher Price toy I had when I was three.

Yep. It’s a device that does what it says it does. It has a simple, consistent interface, makes phone calls, protects you (mostly) from the viruses which are constantly trying to pick your pocket, and has been made so small and convenient that most of the parts aren’t replaceable. It’s not a “general purpose computer” because it’s a phone.

Stop Blaming the Victim

The article has a lot more examples but not one of them convinced me that the problem is that “kids can’t use computers”. In fact, if anything the sentiments expressed in the article are the problem. People shouldn’t need to learn to accommodate shitty design; the design needs to address what real people need to get done.

It might sound like i’m jaded with the industry but I’m not. There seems to be a glimmer of realisation that perhaps usability and simplicity might actually make products more desirable. Hell, one company got to be among the most profitable in the world doing just that. Vote with your wallet and and choose a platform where the user experience is the focus not an afterthought.

In the meantime, let’s stop pretending that “computer literacy” is about your ability to fathom why there would be a mysterious hidden black switch on your black laptop that turns off the WiFi.

4 thoughts on “Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why… Consumer Electronics Sucks

  1. v2blast

    Well said. The problems with the original article are two-fold. One is, of course, as you said, poor design of the user interface. The second is something I mentioned in a comment on the original article as well:

    “The problem has nothing to do with computers themselves, and much more to do with people’s refusal to find out how to identify the problem and/or solve it themselves (at least for simpler/more straightforward problems). For example, if your car is having some sort of problem: even if you don’t have an in-depth knowledge of how the car works, you should at least be able to seek out information about your problem before immediately going to a mechanic.”

    1. ianjs Post author

      That was partially my point (usability is rarely the first consideration) but your broader point about users “refusing” to identify the problem is actually what I was objecting to. To call it “refusal” implies a wilful ignorance on their part, but someone using a commodity appliance like a phone shouldn’t have to understand the underlying operating system to fix an issue. If they do, that’s a massive usability fail.

      Almost every one of the examples was of poor or lazy design where an unnecessary detail was exposed to the user, or something the system already knew (“the ethernet cable is not plugged in”) was left to the user to figure out.

      I’m guessing your reference to cars was related to locked down operating systems like iOS. While some of it is driven by the vendor’s desire for platform lock in, devices like this need to be tightly controlled. They are consumer devices that perform a function. If you need to poke around in the O/S to fix something it is broken by design. If it is constantly disabled by viruses, it is broken by design. The correct answer to the problem is for the user to never see it, not for everyone to have a degree in IT.

      The ultimate evidence, of course is the declining state of the PC industry. There is a tectonic shift here away from the old style operating systems to iPads and other simpler and more constrained platforms.

      This is not because people have given up and have accepted an inferior solution. It’s because they get more done and, as a bonus, they’re not made to feel stupid.

      1. v2blast

        I have no clue where you got the iOS thing from. I was just using a metaphor similar to what the author of the article used: if you’re having a “technical” problem with something you don’t understand, you should at least know where to look to find it, and be willing to make a basic attempt to identify the problem first.

        Fair point about the word choice, although there are some people who will actually refuse to put any effort towards solving their problem (though they are hopefully in the minority).

        1. ianjs Post author

          I was referring to where you said “…if your car is having some sort of problem: … you should at least be able to seek out information about your problem“. iOS is like that: if you have a problem it’s an impenetrable black box and you’re out of luck if you want to try to fix it yourself.

          I take your point though. Some people will always be willing to poke around under the hood and you could argue that it’s too restrictive not to let them.

          My main point was that you shouldn’t have to understand the devices internals to perform its normal function.


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