Dumbing down the decision

by Jono Bacon

A few weeks back while watching TV, I was rather unceremoniously interrupted every fifteen minutes by a series of advert breaks. In the UK, some channels have a wide variety of adverts for things such as toilet rolls, cheese, toys and other random cruft, but on some other channels, the advert breaks take a slightly different tack and instead carry a number of similar attempts to wrestle money from your guarded wallet. On this particular occasion, the theme was quite distinctive - personal injury and loans adverts. Like many people, when these adverts come on, I mentally switch off and disappear into a daydream while I am bombarded with great offers, tacky actors and products I have no interest in. This normally happens 99% of the time, but a few weeks ago, I actually sat there and thought about how these adverts work.

Aside from thinking of the general inaccuracy of how adverts are randomly pumped out to people (as a guy, why would I have an interest in sanitary towels when watching TV - surely there is a better way to direct adverts at the public?), I noticed just how increasingly dumbed down these adverts seem to be getting. On one particular break when I was watching Will & Grace on Living TV, I saw a loans advert with a huge cartoon talking phone that looks like a foot (!) and another advert selling a loan with a blue cartoon phone talking to some unwitting actors. Another advert included what looked like 80's footage of an orangutan trying to persuade someone to take our another loan.

The issue I find slightly concerning about these adverts is that they are advertising serious, life changing products. If I was to trust the blue cartoon phone and take out a loan, but I don't pay it back, they could come around to my house and take away my belongings or even the house itself. The annoying blue phone is not selling some kind of game, food, drink or other convenience item, but advertising a product that could cause untold hell in the hands of those who do not understand the repercussions of taking out the loan and keeping up the repayments. We are all well aware of just how many stupid people there are in the world, and should these people really be attracted to a huge loan advertised with a talking blue phone used to attract their attention?

I would love to talk to the firm who produced these adverts to try to understand the rationale behind why some form of cartoon character was needed to sell serious services such as loans. My gut instinct says that the use of these kinds of characters is trying to make loans appeal to a wider audience that would be put off by a more formal advert sporting a chap in a sensible jumper. The cynic could also conclude that the use of cartoon characters is lowering the bar with regards to who can actually get a loan - this kind of approach could be perceived as trying to sell loans to people who don't really understand them fully. This is made worse by the fact that many of these adverts actively blurt out that any kind of bad credit history really doesn't matter and they will give you a loan anyway. Isn't this like selling matches to an arsonist?

A license to use a service

The crux of this issue seems to be that some services require a level of responsibility, and that responsibility should not be simply thrown out to anyone, and particularly not by using a cartoon phone to attract the responsible party. It is clear that the kinds of services advertised by these adverts bind you into some form of agreement, and all agreements involve a responsibility on both sides of the fence. In cases such as a loan, the responsibility is actually far more in the hands of the customer - if they fail to pay, life can get rather hairy.

This brings forward another issue - how do we determine how this responsibility should be managed? If I want to drive a car, it requires me to have a driving license that is earned by me demonstrating that I am a responsible and knowledgeable driver. This is probably because a car is something that could be pretty dangerous in the hands of an incapable driver. If I want to fire a gun, I also need a license. This is again because a gun can be dangerous in the hands of the irresponsible. So, we have some evidence that if you are going to use something that could be physically dangerous, you need to be vetted and approved by someone. Fair enough.

Where it gets interesting is when the powers that be try to protect ourselves from ourselves. When we are looking at areas such as financial agreements or other areas where we need to engage in responsibility, instead of needing some form of explicit license or clear authority that you are suitable for the service, the risks are instead made available in minuscule text at the bottom of your already fuzzy TV screen - text that those with vision problems may not see. It seems that if there is no physical danger to taking out a loan, we can get away with tiny text outlining the risks and instead concentrate on getting some patronising cartoon freak telling me how I can go on holiday and buy a new car with the £20,000 that will be stuffed into my bank account.

A license to use computers

OK, lets face it, we are all computer bods, and I can see how you are wondering how this is connected to computers and potentially Open Source (sheesh, I rarely write about Open Source ;) ). Well, think about this for a second. If we are experiencing a dumbing down in the full-on responsible areas of life, how does this apply to computers and usability?

Many of us, particularly those who are privy to a certain OS from Redmond, are familiar with some rather annoying cartoon creatures who look over your shoulder and try to help you when writing something as simple as a letter. For some users, they are helpful, but for many of us, we crave some form of button on the toolbar that provides a blunt instrument that can be used to shut that damn paperclip up. These Office Assistants have been written about and parodied in many a book and blog, but they are another example of how the everyday things we do need to be dumbed down and made that little bit more fuzzy and friendly to the user. As with any usability, the proof is in how the 'usability improvement' is taken by users - Office Assistants seem to have not been taken particularly well.

When I first got into Linux, I used to hang around in IRC channels and talk to the old faithful about the different facets of the OS. Back in 1998, Linux was not as developed and enterprise savvy as it is now, and many of the people who resided in these channels were full-on FSF zealots who could not see anything beyond the glory of GPLed software. Many of these often frustrated individuals spent their lives dealing with clueless users who were confused with Windows 95, and this developed a common motto that 'users are stupid' in many of these IRC hang-outs. I feel rather shameful to admit it, but I actually went through a phase at this time when I believed that users were stupid too, and Linux was simply for the more intellectually adept. For about a month back in 1998 I was of the opinion that if you need to learn to drive to drive a car, why shouldn't users learn to use their computers properly?

Although the mind of the logical could see this as a sensible view, the fact is that users don't learn how to use their computers. No one reads a manual on using their computer usually because many computers don't actually come with a manual, or the manual is a 1000-page tome filled with jargon and gobbledygook. This is the reason why we need to concentrate on usability so much, and this is the reason why we have stupid paperclips that peer over your shoulder and try to help you with your work. Usability guru's have stepped forward to try to make computers as easy to use as possible by lowering the bar as far as possible so that those with even a minutia of computer skills can use it - "look Joe, if you can use one Windows program, you can use any Windows program, they all work the same".

Finding a balance

The challenge we face is in determining what is a reasonable level of knowledge for using computers and the desktop and how we can lower the bar as low as possible without patronising users. The problem here is that the use of IT is so diverse that it is a nigh on impossible task to lump all users or customers into the same box. It is in this area that I am not entirely convinced by some of the psychological usability theories - OK, I am male, 25, I like computers and metal, I play in a band and I had a good upbringing...ahhh...I suppose I would naturally click on that button as opposed to this one. I don't think so.

I think the problem here is that IT is as serious as the loans example I used earlier. Sure, if you screw up in OpenOffice.org, you are not going to have your house repossessed, but if you screw up in Gnumeric, you might get your business accounts all wrong and alert the interests of the tax authority. If you screw up with your firewall you may end up becoming an open relay for a spammer. If you screw up with your OS, you may get hacked or catch a virus or worm. If you screw up with your email program, you may lose all of your important business contacts. Our computers are very important, and if they fail through user error, the results can be dramatic, whether you are losing your homework or a multi-billion dollar business deal.

We have a difficult balance to strike between dumbing down technology, making it usable, making it stable, making it secure and ensuring that huge variety of users with different needs all find it satisfying and simple to use. On on hand, we can approach the challenge by throwing more usability experts at the problem and trying to come up with increasingly stupid ideas to make our programs easier and more accessible, but on the other hand we could invest the experts in educating people in better ways. Many firms will throw millions of dollars at their software to improve its usability, but the documentation and learning materials are often woefully supported. People learn by doing, and if there is a simple and truly usable means to learn how the program works, it will reap a far more practical benefit. I would far rather see that George W. Bush learns how to press the big red button by reading the official White House 'How do learn to be a president in 21 days' rather than having a huge purple dinosaur say "It looks like you want to wipe out a country. Can I help?".

Education is the key to many of these problems. Sure, no one reads the manual, but this is the challenge of usability - just apply the challenge to education instead of the software.

What do you think? Are these observations true, and are there any other approaches we could take to make things better?


2004-09-27 04:57:29
I enjoyed reading this, but why was it published to the Mac page? Perhaps I'm missing something here... ;-)
2004-09-27 06:38:10
I used to feel this way

For a long time I used to feel that people should have to learn how to use computers and that those who wouldn't read the manuals and put in the time shouldn't be allowed to use them.

All of that changed when I became a lab assistant for a computer cluster in college. Here were plenty of smart people, all as smart as me or they wouldn't have gotten into my college, but they had trouble with computers.

I realized that the problem wasn't the people, it was the computers. Sure I was a computer expert, but most of these people were experts in something else. The structural engineering students were learning to make buildings better so that I didn't have to worry about it. Didn't I have the responsiblity to make computers better so that they didn't have to worry about it

It was at that time that I switched my specialization to Usability. :)

    - Joshua
2004-09-27 20:58:46
Who is stupid?
Well of course it can be determined in two ways:

1. If you are George W. Bush or like him, YOU ARE STUPID.
2. If you are a Windows user, regardless of excuse, YOU ARE STUPID.

Neither of these conditions affords one any right to sympathy.

Both ensure the reduction of humanity to insipid, whining dullards.