I’ve recently started running a course called Computers for the Clueless (name chosen by the local education authority), which is aimed at helping people who’ve not really used computers before to be able to do some basics. For me, basics covers using the keyboard and the mouse effectively, using the operating system (in this case Windows 7), CRUD tasks for files, and a few internet tasks including general navigation and sending and receiving emails.

None of these should be remotely ambitious over a six-hour course, split into two hour sessions. And most of them aren’t. I’ve had no trouble getting the learners to start feeling confident with creating text files on notepad and editing text, copying and pasting, saving their work etc. They know how to use the Start menu, open and close programs and files.

But getting them to be able to use the internet effectively has proven a real struggle. There were two reasons for this:

  1. The venue (a public library) computers had IE7 on them and nothing worked properly.

  2. Once we switched to a slightly less outdated version of Firefox, I began to realize that the internet has a lot less words on it than it used to. For people with little prior experience of computers, this is a real problem, because they don’t have the required experience to make assumptions about what an interface element might be.

I think this course would have been far easier to teach 10 years ago. As I remember it, when I was about 12, there were some rules about what websites looked like. Links were a different colour from the rest of the text and were invariably underlined. Icons, if they were present at all, were purely for decoration. I’m not saying that websites were better back then, because of course they weren’t, but many of them probably were simpler.

For example, as part of one of the sessions, I had them all create google accounts so that they could use gmail. This required them to give them their phone number to receive a verification code, which is a problem if you don’t have a mobile phone, which some of them didn’t. They can fetch the message off of their home phone, sure, but it’s hardly convenient or, in my opinion, necessary. It’s a clear barrier to entry.

Then, upon return to the Google home page, I was asked, what do these squares mean? And this bell? I looked at the page, and thought, yeah. Why are Google using a 3x3 grid to denote that this is how you open the app menu, and why has the bell symbol suddenly become an acceptable substitute for the word notifications? Why is doing that better than having the words ‘menu’ and ‘notifications’? Especially when ‘mail’ and ‘images’ are in text right next to the icons. Similarly, inside gmail, there are dozens more icons, though these are labelled on hover which is some help.

I would imagine that over 90% of unrestricted internet users use at least some of Google’s apps. They are internet staples now. I’m not looking to bash Google, and I appreciate that, when it comes to simple design, Google is a real leader thanks to its Material Design language. But even so it should always be possible for people to know what options are available to them on a webpage, even if they don’t know exactly what they are or how to use them.

We’ve invested lots of effort as software developers in recent years to make it possible for people to put their content on the internet without having to know code. By cutting out text explanations of interfaces, we’re forcing people to learn a code to use them.