Eva Pascoe | Digital Retailer

June 29th, 1998
Stop treating us like web dummies: This sudden vote of no confidence in our online IQ is strange

THERE IS a worrying trend emerging in Internet development. An increasing number of new Internet products are being rejected at the funding stage before the online customer even gets a chance to play with them. “The Internet is now a mass medium so we must dumb it down for the masses” appears to be the new motto.

As the online population (currently estimated at 90 million) expands, large media owners increasingly want to feed us simplistic Internet products created for the lowest common denominator. Any more than two buttons on the screen and the customer will panic and run away from the Internet to the safety of the high street, or so goes the new design wisdom spreading among venture capitalists. Recently I saw an exciting proposal for a travel website, to be used for creating video brochures. It was technically novel, but since it required the potential customer to download a plug-in for their web browser, the proposal was rejected. Apparently, mass market Internet users are classified as cognitively incapable of learning how to install plug-ins. Another product seeking funding was based on combining online cinema ticket sales with videos of trailers displayed in a personalised manner. It was very cool, but hey, a plug-in was needed, so the potential backers backed away.

This sudden vote of no confidence in our collective online IQ is strange, as it is not supported by any real evidence. The arguments that the venture capitalists are using go all the way back to the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed not to speed things up but rather to slow down typists, to keep them from jamming mechanical typewriters. There were attempts to improve keyboards, the most prominent by Dvorak, but despite the advantages of new layouts, people still cling to the old, slow QWERTY. This is cited by some venture capitalists as proof of how dumb we are, and how unworthy of new, more efficient solutions.

However, QWERTY is an entirely different problem, having originated from a large, installed user base (ie, millions of people who learned the old keyboard style) who can type at a reasonable speed. To most people, saving 10 minutes a day is not a good enough reason to learn a new keyboard layout.

However, this is different from learning how to use an Internet product that will save you several hours per week at the low price of having to learn how to download and install plug-ins. If a new ticket-ordering site saves your Saturday by making sure you don’t have to queue for the cinema only to find out that the last ticket has been sold, I bet you will figure out how to download that plug-in without too many problems.

Proof that people are willing to learn how to use new tools can be found in the PalmPilot. 3Com’s personal digital organiser (PDA) has been a runaway success, selling a million units in less than 18 months. Its success, according to its creators, is based upon a single assumption: that people like learning to work with new tools.

The problem that dogged previous PDAs was in handwriting recognition. We all write differently and if you put the burden of having to read the different letters on the PDA, you will end up with a slow tool. Jeff Hawkins, creator of Graffiti, the handwriting system used by the PalmPilot, followed his belief that people like learning and asked the customers to learn a handwriting system that the Pilot finds quick and easy to read. By putting the burden of having to learn the special signs on the user, Hawkins was able to build a device that was faster. Makers of other PDAs think people are too dumb to learn a new handwriting system and so have lost out to Hawkins, a guy who took time to understand human motivations.

There are plenty of complex products on the Internet which are very popular despite the fact they require a learning curve. For example, shopping on Amazon (http://www. amazon. com) requires the user to go through a complex decision path before making a purchase, to have the ability to use online forms and to have an understanding of hypertext. A new online fashion expert at Evans (http://www. evans. ltd. uk) gives advise based on an individual customer’s body shape, and simplifies the purchase of fashion items. It requires the skill of visual pattern matching and fluency in use of hypertexted decision paths. These are not skills that many women have to use every day, yet the site has recorded more than a million visits since its launch. Further proof that, despite the fact that a lot of interactive consumers are beginners, this does not mean they are incapable of learning how to download files, configure new peripherals or use complex pattern matching.

So, Mr Venture Capitalist, give us some credit and take a chance on innovative new products. After all, our generation is being defined by the collective experience of using the Internet.

Dumbing the Net down now, after we have learned so much, would be a criminal waste of all the cognitive energy unleashed by the Information Revolution.

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