Three Kinds of Computer Users

August 2014  |  Status: Second Draft

There are roughly 3 kinds of computer users nowadays. Of course these are stereotypes, but I think the simplification helps explain what’s been happening with Linux desktop environments, mobile UIs, and widely polarizing Windows versions of late.

Group A

Expert programmers who need nothing more than a browser, a text editor, and a bunch of terminals. They can do everything with the keyboard. They barely even touch the mouse unless it’s absolutely necessary. They usually don’t care what their DE is, as long as it stays out of their way.

Group B

Power users who spend a lot of time in WYSIWYG applications (graphics, video editing, Excel, etc.), multitask a lot, and make heavy use of the mouse. They know some keyboard shortcuts, but the nature of their work makes the mouse, not the keyboard, their primary method of interacting with the computer. Remember the gal/dude who did all the web design for your last project? Or the team who made that promotional video for you? They probably belong in this group.

Group C

Casual users who use nothing more than a browser and a music app. Maybe they also use a word processor from time to time, you know, to make garage sale flyers and birthday party invitations. Comic Sans is their best friend, Command Prompt is their worst enemy. They tend to use the mouse more than the keyboard, but both can be easily replaced with a touchscreen. You can usually catch them trying to buy computing devices in the local Wal-Mart.

When the Three Groups Meet…

What’s interesting about the situation is that Groups A and C share a lot of preferences despite being at opposite ends of the computer literacy scale. Both groups use only a few apps, so it doesn’t really matter how those apps are launched. Both groups can live without a mouse for the most part. Neither group spends much time wandering through menus and settings, Group A because they don’t need to, and Group C because they don’t know how to. This leaves Group B in the awkward position of heavily depending on the traditional desktop metaphor (icons, menus, toolbars, and most of all, mice).

Unfortunately, Group A are the ones who make all the operating systems, and since C is the largest group, they are the default target users of such operating systems. It’s easy to target both A and C. You just make a simple, touchscreen-friendly UI where all the advanced functions are hidden behind keyboard shortcuts and/or menually editable configuration files.

But while the rest of us fantasize about a “universal” UI that can scale seamlessly from 4” phone to 40” TV, Group B are stuck in the middle, holding tight to their precious mice and 27” monitor, surrounded by UIs that are so utterly unoptimized for their hardware and daily work. A lot of moderately proficient users in the middle of the bell curve are now pissed off because they see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to use a mouse to get work done. And since we’re talking about a bell curve, that’s a lot of pissed-off users.

HUD? Seriously? You want me to take my hand off my lovely tailless plastic rodent and type the name of the menu item that I want to use? Once you imagine yourself in Group B’s shoes, all the backlash against Unity, GNOME 3, and Windows 8 makes perfect sense.