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The Grandma Test
Because in silicon valley we're surrounded by computer tech professionals, I know that it's easy to forget how hard computers are to use for most people. To adjust for that, I try to resist designs that add subtle features or new interaction styles, because they will confuse people.

But even so, watching my Grandma try to use her computer is a stark reminder that I have completely lost touch with average users. For example, over the phone I might have recommended that she use Picasa for organizing photos, since I think it's very easy to use:

But actually Picasa is very confusing for her, basically unusable. And the reason isn't that it's poorly designed, so much as that it's just not designed for someone with such a total lack of understanding of basic computer concepts. Some examples:
  • Grandma doesn't understand the concept of different views of data, so when she sees her pictures in Picasa she thinks they're copies of the pictures on her hard drive--- and so she keeps deleting and moving her pictures around to try to "get rid of the extra copies."
  • Grandma's digital camera automatically installed Photoshop Elements 4.0, and she doesn't understand that Picasa is different from Photoshop. So when she uses Picasa she looks for Photoshop features on the screen and thinks she "lost" them.
  • Picasa's camera import utility prompts you to give your photos a name, which is great. But Picasa isn't the default import utility, and Grandma's camera software imports her photos directly into a folder with just the date, and doesn't ask for a name. So she has thousands of pictures with names like "12_04_05/IMG_3241.jpg", so when she searches for things like "Spain", of course Picasa doesn't find any of her pictures.
  • Once Grandma has clicked into an album, she thinks the rest of her photos are "lost" because she doesn't understand that the Album View is different from the Library View, and that she has to click "back" in order to see the rest of her pictures.
For someone with this level of computing skill, I don't believe that design success is possible at all--- Picasa can't teach Grandma what folders and windows are, and Picasa can't prevent other third-party software from interacting badly with it.

Computers are just way too hard to use.

You might argue that Apple doesn't have this problem because they design all of the software to work together. I would almost agree, except that for users who buy a non-Apple-brand digital camera, there will always be some dumb third-party software that makes things just as confusing. While it's true that OSX doesn't have much third-party software available to muddy up its Macintoshes, Apple has no inherent immunity to this problem. If anything, its lack of widespread support is it's best protection--- if Apple had 80% market share, Canon would have written a confusing Photo Import Utility for it, too.
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