Please stop designing for your mother

In the past 10 years of designing software, I’ve been repeatedly told by co-workers:

“Make it easy enough for my mom to use.”

“So simple my 97 year old grandmother can figure it out.”

“Imagine you’re designing for your mother.”

The requests have good intentions – make this software easy to use so people who aren’t experts can use it easily. But three things bother me.

1. Women

Not once have I been asked to “make it so simple my grandfather can use it.” Or, “imagine you’re designing for your dad.” Never, “make it simple enough for a 22-year-old frat boy.”

No, it’s always making it simple enough for a woman.

Where does this assumption that women are the lowest common denominator of customers originate? When a colleague was asked to make it simple enough for her mother, she replied, “my mother teaches computer science at the University of Texas.”

It’s a small thing, but small things add up to big things. Big things like systemic sexism, and this is an example of it. Sexism isn’t always overt – it’s also subtle and happens when people reinforce negative stereotypes under good intentions in ways that seem innocuous.

2. Age

When people ask me to make things simpler, it’s always for someone older. Parents. Grandparents. Old people. Like the previous example, I’ve never been asked to “make it so simple a 12-year old can use it.”

Old = slow and physically limited
Young = fast and dexterous

Old = luddites
Young = tech savvy

Old = poor eyesight, big fonts
Young = sharp eyes, small fonts

But the world is diverse. Young people have physical limitations, too. I certainly did when I was 20 and my wrist was broken for three months.

Old people can be tech-savvy too. My grandfather introduced and explained the internet to my family in 1994.

Font size and ease of use – something widely believed to be correlated with age – isn’t at all. Research has found that small text is just as difficult for teens as it is for older people.

How many other assumptions about age are off base?

3. Measurement

It’s tough to measure success if the only metric is, “so simple my 97-year-old grandmother can use it.”

My grandmother is an artist. Does that mean it should be easy for artists? For people with short-term memory problems? For people who use a computer frequently? For people who use a product only once? Or many times in one day?

If you want something a certain way, state a goal, be specific, and make it measurable so everyone has the same understanding.

Why is this a problem?

Entrenched stereotypes make it easy to make false assumptions about people, and when unchallenged, those false assumptions lead to faulty product decisions, which can lead to major problems in a final product. It goes like this:

  1. I think I’m smart and understand the world and everyone in it
  2. I am making a product
  3. I don’t need to validate anything with anyone because I already understand them (they’re stupid)
  4. I release my product
  5. My product has usability, desirability, or content problems

When I hear someone say “make it simple enough for your mother”, I’m really hearing, “I’m smart and people who aren’t like me are stupid.”

But they’re not stupid. What they are is completely uninterested in software. Those stupid people are doctors, teachers, and bakers. Aid workers, architects, and sanitary workers. Waiters. Taxi drivers. Flight attendants. People who make the world function as much as anyone else. Having no interest in the tech industry does not make someone stupid.

If you understand your product and your customers don’t, they’re not the stupid ones. You are. Because you just spent a lot of time and effort releasing a product that’s hard to use and makes people feel stupid.

It’s not about simplicity

Simplicity isn’t the goal. Rather, as Don Norman writes, it’s about managing the complexity of a system so complex things are possible. It’s about making software usable and learnable, and making people feel confident about themselves.

What I’ve found effective is using measurable outcomes that avoid stereotyping anyone. So instead of, “so simple your mom can use it”, try these alternatives:

  1. Using it for the first time requires no training
    This is applicable to anyone and implies a level of ease of use.

  2. 100% task completion when people use it for the first time
    For a specific task, this helps indicate what’s important: completion rate in the context of first time use.

  3. 100% task completion within 5 seconds
    With a specific time attached, the expectations are obvious about what’s an acceptable goal for whatever’s being measured.

  4. 100% task completion within 5 seconds and a 100% satisfaction rating
    By measuring satisfaction, the goal isn’t just efficiency, but how people feel about it in the end. People might be able to finish something in 5 seconds, but how helpful is that if they feel terrible at the end of it?

Clear and measurable goals make obvious what matters and what doesn’t when making something. And ideally, what you make is usable by anyone – not just an assumed stereotype of someone.

One thought on “Please stop designing for your mother”

  1. How refreshing. Coincidentally, CBC Radio recently aired a program about the need for the computer world to help the scientific world to quickly and easily manage massive amounts of data. Valuable research hours will continue to be wasted unless a stronger focus is made on communication and collaboration. You’re right … people aren’t stupid just because their focus is outside the world of technology. Keep up the good work.
    From your Mother.

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