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Stupid User Syndrome: Why We Become Idiots Online (And What Web Designers Can Do About It)

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Whether we like to admit it or not, we've all been victims of stupid user syndrome at some point or another. Designing the Moment author Robert Hoekman Jr. outlines the symptoms of this terrible malady as well as what Web designers can do to prevent it.
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Users do some awfully dumb things. Chalk it up to Stupid User Syndrome—the disease that causes otherwise perfectly normal people to become total morons as soon as they turn on their computers. They’ll make one ridiculous mistake after another, even when using painfully obvious designs. They’ll write an entire resume and forget to save it. They’ll ask the staff at the Internet cafe for the password to their personal email accounts. While at the local library, they’ll enter the username for their home machines into a browser’s Address bar and wonder why they can’t access their personal files.

So, who are these stupid users and how can we stop them from taking over the web?

Surprisingly, the answer isn’t so simple. (And please, don’t walk away from this article until you’ve read the last few paragraphs.)

Having watched countless hours of usability testing sessions, both formal and informal, I’ve noticed something important. A huge number of users that test out designs have college educations. They have decent-paying jobs. They have important titles like Operations Manager, Media Officer, Librarian, Medical Technician, and Sales Manager. They’re frequent computer users, leveraging the web for email, shopping, banking, entertainment, and more. They even have an intermediate or advanced level of understanding of how to use the personal PC and get things done online.

Surely, they’re not the ones making all the mistakes. So which users are the dumb ones?

It must be the genuinely stupid people, right? The ones with low IQs? The ones who dropped out of kindergarten?

Nope. That’s not it. It doesn’t matter if our users are dropouts or PhD-carrying rocket scientists. They can screw up just as well as anyone. And believe me, they will.

Understanding why is vital to knowing how to design better applications.

The psychology of idiocy

We human beings are the victims of our own minds. The very things that make us capable of reason and intelligence are the same things that make us complete idiots. Our ability to think, in fact, begets our cunning ability to stop thinking.

What do we do instead of thinking? A whole lot of things. Let’s take a look.

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