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Feb 3 2010

Stop Being an Idiot

I hear this phrase a lot, and even recently, out of my own mouth: “Users are stupid, so we have to dumb this down to the lowest common denominator.” Stop it. Just stop it.

Our job, when designing features and interfaces, is to make them powerful, usable, and understandable. Not to cater to those people too lazy to think. Our job is to make things intuitive. But intuition still requires an individual to want to understand something. It requires an attempt to understand. It requires thought, even subconsciously. We have little power over people’s desire to succeed. We can only provide the tools to do so. So teach people, don’t criticize them.

People aren’t stupid. Really, they’re not. It’s possible they don’t have the same experiences you do, but that doesn’t mean they’re an idiot. Writing people off, and dumbing down utility in the name of stupidity is, well, stupid. Bring people with you, and provide them tools to learn and be successful.

Exercise and Education

When you exercise, you stretch yourself. You get healthy by pushing past your existing level of fitness. You don’t succeed by dumbing down your workout. You push, you learn, and you get better. We educate users the same way. We must show, explain, and gently push our users to succeed.

Simple, not Stupid

And don’t misunderstand. Keep things simple. But simple doesn’t mean stupid. Simple doesn’t mean boring. And simple certainly doesn’t mean standard. It means you can figure it out, even if it takes a minimal amount of thinking.1

Celebrate when users succeed, and don’t patronize them for wanting or needing help.

Teach, Don’t Ignore

Again, your users aren’t stupid. They could very easily be intimidated. Nobody likes the unfamiliar. But people love to succeed. So help them. Provide cues, hints, and even invite questions. But don’t dumb it down.

And here’s the real truth: If you’re dumbing down your interface or features because you think people won’t ‘get it,’ you’re hurting the experience of those who are more comfortable in your software. If you don’t provide hints and cues in your interface, you’re intimidating and hurting the experience for people who aren’t as comfortable on the web. Either way, you’re keeping people from learning, and that’s just uncool.

So stop thinking your users are stupid. Teach them, train them, and let them succeed. And in the process, if you let them, they’ll teach you a thing or two as well.