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Usability and User Ability

Simon Pitt | Internet | Sunday 5th September 2010

A few weeks ago I had to set up a shared network folder for all BBC Radio Drama staff.

Ignoring the issue of actually creating the folder, you would think this would be a relatively simple matter.


Let's just think through the process: Now, everyone in the department has network drives mapped to certain letters. For example, a drive containing programmes is on M, known affectionately as "the M drive".

Since most people accessed the drives through My Computer I needed to do the same with our full department drive.

After a bit of research I chose T since it seemed to be free for everybody. The problem now was how to get everyone to map the path to T.

This wasn't something I could do for everyone since staff were spread across the country. So I'd have to get each user to do it himself.

Now, if you're reading this, and I told you to map a network drive chances are you would do one of two things:
  1. You'd already know how to map a drive, and you'd just do it
  2. If it happened to be something you've never done before, you'd probably type "Map network drive" into Google and end up on a page like this. Then you'd just map it.
However, searching for how to map a network drive simply would not occur to most (if any) of my users. So, I had to come up with a different solution.

Solution #1

Tell them how to do it.

Now, it's not complicated to map a network drive:
  1. Open My Computer
  2. Click on Tools
  3. Click on Map Network Drive
  4. Type in the path
  5. Choose the drive letter (T in this case)
  6. Click Finish
And that's really spelling it out.

Again, if you're reading this, chances are if I said "It's under Tools in My Computer", you'd be able to figure the rest out.

I emailed the guide to my users. However, this proved too much for most of them. They received the eMail, they probably even skimmed it, but they didn't act on it.

After all, they didn't want access to what was on the network drive (i.e. nothing). Perhaps if someone had told them there was something wonderful on the drive then they would have followed the instructions, but they had no reason to do so. There just wasn't enough cheese for them.

One person even printed out the instructions (all 6 lines of them), and stuck them on their noticeboard. Several days later, she asked me for something on the network drive. When I mentioned the instructions she acted surprised and explained she hadn't actually read them, she just printed them because they looked important.

Of course, not everyone ignored the instructions. Yet even among people who actually wanted access to the drive, few mapped it.

The instructions weren't complicated, but as soon as they read "Click..." they got scared and assumed the instructions would be too complicated for them to follow.

Solution #2

Because the guide was so short, perhaps people worried it wasn't complete. I figured that some people were scared they would have to figure some things out for themselves.

So, I wrote an "enhanced" guide that contained screenshots of each stage.

I also attempted to simplify the terms and remove any terminology that might isolate non-technical users. For example, rather than saying "Open My Computer" I wrote "Double Click on the My Computer button on the desktop".

This had a slightly higher success rate. Certainly more people printed them out. (Some people, I noticed printed out both sets, not realising they were the same thing).

By adding the screenshots, the guide seemed more important and consequently got a coveted place on the pinboard.

However, people still weren't mapping the damn network drive.

Solution #3

As simple as these instructions were, they were just too much for my users to follow.

It wasn't that they didn't understand them (these were, intelligent people, every single one of them had a degree). The problem was getting them to start following the instructions in the first place.

So, I tried to think of a way to map the network drives, that would require less cognitive load from the user.

After a bit of thinking, I remembered that it was easy to write a bat file to automate the process:
Net use T: //computer nameshare/name
So, I wrote a bat file called Map to T drive.bat and saved it into the shared drive.

Another eMail went around with a UNC link to the network drive. Underneath there was the much simpler guide:
  1. Click on the blue underlined text above
  2. Once you have done that, double click on Map to T drive
Much simpler. The user also didn't have to do anything out of the ordinary. All they had to do was double click on a file.

Shortly afterwards I received an eMail from one of our IT Co-ordinators (an IT Co-ordinator! One of the people that give advice to other users!) challenging me on the instructions.

How, she asked, were people meant to get to the network drive to double click the file to map the drive without already having mapped it?

This gave more of an idea of why people weren't following the instructions: they weren't reading the eMails in the first place.

I explained to her that they could click the link to open the path.

Interestingly, while she skim read the eMail sent to "All Users", when I eMailed just her, she read the eMail thoroughly.

Later that day a colleague in Birmingham phoned me to tell me that her manager had asked her to "set up the drive thing that Simon eMailed about". My friend had had to go into her manager's office and double click the bat file for her.

It seemed that even this was too much for her to follow.

Solution #4

There seemed to be two problems so far:
  1. Most people can't be bothered to follow instructions unless they asked for them.
  2. If they have to do something they've not done before they panic.
My plan this time was to contact IT support and get them to automatically map the drives overnight. When everyone logged in next day the drives would just be there.

This turned out to be a harder task than I expected, with IT passing the task around. I eventually got an eMail saying the job was complete only to discover that their definition of 'complete' was to give everyone access (which they already had), and then eMail each user saying: "Map the network drive. If you need assistance please contact IT support".

Needless to say, no one mapped the drive, and no one contacted IT support.

Solution #5

I was beginning to wonder now if it might have been quicker just to get a round ticket via Belfast and Edinburgh and just set everyone's computers up myself.

As I saw with my friend in Birmingham, not everyone was completely incapable. In fact, there were key users across the department who acted as the first line computer support for their surrounding co-workers.

Often, their IT knowledge was barely any better than the people they were helping. However, there were two important features of these people:
  1. They could follow instructions
  2. They liked imparting the knowledge onto others
Whether this was because it made them feel powerful or was due to some other complex didn't really matter. If I gathered these users together, and 'trained' them how to map the drives (ideally using the bat file, which was so simple, it didn't matter what their IT skills were) then they could map the drives for the people in their surrounding areas. Just like my friend in Birmingham had done.

Really, I was shocked by the skill level of the general users. After all, these weren't idiots. These users were intelligent people. They used computers all day and everyday. They worked in a media company. Many of them add content to BBC websites or edit programmes using advanced software. And I wasn't asking them to do something in their free time, they were at work, and we were telling them to do something (and paying them to do so). Yet, still, the success rate was gob-smackingly low.

There was a huge chasm between the most skilled users and the least. I'm reminded of Jakob Nielsen's comment about searching on Google:
How difficult is it to perform a search on Google?

I'm not talking about the challenge of formulating a good query, interpreting the results, or revising your search strategy to reap better results. Those are all very complicated research skills, and few people excel at them.

I'm talking only about the very first step in searching the Web: Getting to your favorite search engine so that you can run a search there.


If you thought it's easy to get to Google, think again. In our current round of usability research, only 76% of users who expressed a desire to run a Google search were successful. In other words, 1/4 of users who wanted to use Google couldn't do so. (Instead, they either completely failed to get to any search engine or ended up running their query on a different search engine - usually whatever type-in field happened to be at hand.)


I doubt that any Web designer would be incapable of running a Google search.
This gap is enormously. Compare this with using another device like a TV. If you asked 100 people to turn BBC 1 on, you'd expect a 100% success rate (perhaps 99% if someone misheard you, or their TV broke). And yet with computers it is common for well over half of your users not to understand what they're doing for most of their time. In my case, I'd say the success rate was around 2%.

I don't really have any solutions to the problem. My initial thoughts were that it was a usability problem; people were finding the instructions too difficult to follow. But I think now it goes deeper than that.

If double clicking a file is too complex a task for a user then how easy do things have to be?

My suspicion is that the ease of the task was irrelevant. It wasn't software or hardware that was causing the problem but human factors. While I definitely think increasing usability is a key step, in this case, it was only the beginning. Either, I needed to find a way of mapping the drive without involving the user (don't bother getting them to do anything) or, somehow, completely change their attitude towards their computer.

Either way, it's no easy task.



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