In User Testing in the Wild: Joe’s First Computer Encounter, a researcher for Mozilla encounters a 60 year old man who has never used a computer and describes what it was like to have him use a computer to search for restaurants using various web browsers. It's a fascinating read:

Me: “Joe, let’s pretend you’ve sat down at this computer, and your goal is finding a local restaurant to eat at.”

Joe: “But I don’t know what to do.”

Me: “I know, but I want you to approach this computer like you approach a city you’re not familiar with. I want you to investigate and look around try and figure out how it works. And I want you to talk out loud about what you’re thinking and what you’re trying.”

(I show Joe how to use a mouse. He looks skeptical, but takes it in his hand and stares at the screen.)

Joe: “I don’t know what anything means.”

An interesting observation was that the man spent most of his time reading and not really interpreting standard UI elements like buttons or icons. That's a testament to the importance of copy writing, I guess.

Hacker News has a thread about it in which several people are coming forward and describing their experiences with people who've never used computers before, as well as what designing and producing software for that market entails. One such person posted an interesting list of recommendations that you should consider when designing for this audience:

As for those best practices, here are a few examples:

  • Emphasize actionable items with animations, and textual and pictorial descriptions of the actions that must be taken. Instead of saying "right click", we might show a picture of the mouse with the right button highlighted, with a "clicking" animation indicating the action to be performed.
  • Use iconography and terminology derived from the subject matter or real-world objects, instead of common "abstract" UI elements. For instance, a light switch (indicated as actionable, of course) instead of a check box.
  • Simplify user interactions and interfaces to the absolute minimum. Reduce the actions the user must perform in order to be satisfied. Reduce the number of options presented to the user at any one time.

In many ways, designing an interface for a zero-experience user is like choosing a programming language: You want the language that lets you describe exactly the program you need to make in as few instructions as possible. Likewise, you want an interface that lets your users describe exactly the action they need the program to perform in as few interactions as possible.

This led me to wonder if the UX community has any more experience designing for people like this. What kind of patterns and conventions have been established when targeting an audience unfamiliar with existing paradigms like windows, the mouse, multiple document interfaces, buttons & forms, the meaning of iconography, and computing terms like "browsers", "backing up", "folders", etc that we all take for granted?

Is there any interesting reading we could look into to better understand designing for this group of people?

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    How common is it to put a completely foreign interface in the hands of a novice without any sort of guidance? I'm wondering about the role of demos, "watch me first" videos, and the like in addressing this problem. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 18:01
  • 3
    Have you looked into kiosk design? Some similar problems. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 18:35
  • You need to specify what you're designing. The OS / Applications Packages / or websites ? OSs are full of user issues just on their own.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 9:28
  • @PhilipW I'm not designing anything, I'm just curious about the challenges involved generally. Feel free to answer from any point of view.
    – Rahul
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 11:18
  • Interesting to see this one come up right now. Lately many designers have been speculating about what Apple will do with iOS 7 - continuing the odd flat vs skeuomorphic design debate. While I'm not interested in the debate itself, one of the side points that I keep seeing from smart designers (such as this article from Jason Santa Maria) is this: when Apple designed the first iPhone, they were essentially giving the world a new interaction pattern. Touch screens have been around for many years, of course, but they weren't at th Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 16:39

2 Answers 2


For those with kids, perhaps you remember the first time your children had a go on the computer, having never used a mouse before. It's amazing how quickly they pick it up. Before you know it they're playing games on kids websites.

Ok, so they need to learn how to use a mouse having never used one before. But once they've done that, they don't need to learn to use it again for every different program and website. So it's not for long that you need to cater for the absolute novice.

This means that the range of abilities that need to be catered for are very diverse (too diverse) for a program to actually be used by all users for complex tasks. Thus, typically applications that DO cater for absolute novices will comprise very short tasks - so aiding user satisfaction on completion.

Once the user can manage these short dedicated applications, they can soon start to explore gradually more complex (relatively speaking) applications.

Most programs that cater for the traditional progression from novice to expert, don't actually cater for the complete novice because it does require a completely different thought process in almost every aspect of the design, and the two designs don't sit side by side.

I have a little relevant experience approaching this area. I was asked to design and implement a touch screen sign-in system for a pre-School childcare facility (kindergarten) where parents and carers could sign their kids in and out at the beginning and end of the day. Childcare staff had to be able to sign themselves in and out and view system records, status etc). It had to be designed for basically anyone to use as there was no scope for training and time to achieve the task is pretty limited on a busy morning.

Another example that comes to mind is a system installed in a local library near me recently. Automated check out and returning of library books (+CDs, DVDs, videos etc) where they are either placed in a 'hole' or on a shelf, (depending on whether the item is on hold maybe).

Common attributes of both these systems included:

  • full touch screen interface
  • oversize buttons and fonts
  • single screens - no dialogs, popups, menus, tooltips etc
  • simple words
  • animated video clips (really short)
  • realistic pictures (and no metaphors)
  • clear simple icons, (if any, avoiding the common combinations of object and action)
  • very clear feedback that something just happened
  • audio feedback
  • minimal choices (very simple ones at that)
  • crystal clear call to action
  • time outs if nothing pressed, auto return to 'safe harbour'
  • one side of screen for prompts, the other side for actions, no variation
  • emphasis of successful outcomes
  • playing down of negative outcomes
  • total avoidance of dead ends
  • permanent 'panic' cancel/home buttons on display
  • staff on hand for those who simply did not even want to try using the system
  • more complex/traditional functionality (eg for staff, admin) via hidden access

Neither system actually shows you how to use a touch screen. A 30 second introduction from a member of staff at first point of use is all that was required in either case - typically utilizing a dummy run-through to show how easy it is. After that they could usually do it on their own.

Not many systems that will be interacted with by absolute novices will not have anyone around to help out in order to get over that very first hurdle.

  • Roger, from what you've seen, how do users respond to those automatic timeouts? Is it actually a relief, or does the time limit add extra pressure to already panic-prone users? Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 18:42
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    From what I see, people take a few seconds to assess whether there is something on screen that they wish to continue with. If it takes much longer to assess this then it's too complicated. If the time out is too long, then the user starts to worry. If the timeout is too short, the user will feel pressured the next time. In between is a medium that you can only adjust to suit most - but not all - users. Depending on their speed of reading, reaction times etc, and their general relaxed state or propensity to worry, the time differs for each person. Something around 5-10 seconds seems to suit. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 19:09

It's worth bearing in mind that for a naive computer user what's on screen is just a mass of meaningless shapes and colours.

It's like seeing an impressionist representation rather than a photo of a person:

enter image description here

Children and teenagers learn quickly; however, the ability to 'learn new stuff' drops off after around the age of 35.

Learning to use a Windows PC and application programs from scatch for an older person is quite hard.

  • 3
    "the ability to 'learn new stuff' drops off after around the age of 35." No. This is a hangover from Thorndike's early work, and has been largely challenged and superseded in the last few decades. "Speed of learning" - not learning itself - is more affected, but even then it does not taper quite the way people expect.
    – gef05
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 15:43
  • I've done a lot of computer training, and the ability to 'learn new stuff' drops off with age. Young people can see something once and memorize it instantly. Older people have to start writing things down as they can't memorize them, and then have to try and find the relevant information in their notes later.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 21:21
  • Phillip, as a matter of fact you are illustrating the issue with speed of learning that Gary referred to. Nonetheless, the general ability to learn prevails, even with advancing age. See the whole amazing bunch of research on neuroplasticity. Commented Jul 9, 2011 at 7:20
  • If older people can't remember how to do something; and can't find it in the tracts of notes they scribble down; then effectively they've not learnt how to do something.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jul 9, 2011 at 19:01
  • 1
    @PhillipW I'd like to see some references to back up your (controversial) assertion about 35+ year olds; even if it's true it'd be nice to see the research.
    – Rahul
    Commented Jul 9, 2011 at 22:40

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