A Google Researcher Reveals 4 Crucial Things "Average Users" Should Know But Don't

A widescreen monitor, a tabbed browser, and other tech improvements haven't actually improved work and life for so many people—mostly because they don't know how to use them.

Anyone who builds things for the web, or touts a product that "everybody can use," should think about Control-F. You know, that browser shortcut that finds text on a page? Ninety percent of people actually don’t know that, along with many other misconceptions about "average user" skills.

That most confounding Control+F finding comes from Dan Russell, who works on quantifying how people search and research things for Google. His actual title these days is Über Tech Lead, Search Quality & User Happiness, but his role is much the same: figuring out what people do and do not understand about search and, by extension, their computers.

I asked Russell to expand on other tech tools that have accelerated a bit faster than many people’s understanding. He offered up some interesting findings, and a great resource for working toward better understanding.

There Is Hope: Control+F Is More Common In Schools

At least the next generation of web searchers has a leg up on finding the text they were actually looking for in a web page. According to an email exchange with Russell (lightly edited for format):

Among U.S. K-12 teacher (Control+F knowledge) is around 50%, with huge variations by school district and location. As you'd guess, tech-savvy schools (districts) do reasonably well. But most of the U.S. is not tech-savvy. I've seen many cases where the lack of the ability to find a text on the web page leads to all kinds of scholastic hilarity.

Nearly Every Browser Has Tabs, Often For Naught

Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome: Their top-mounted tabs are how many web workers organize their day, their thinking, their connections to the world. But, Russell writes, tabs are often incidental additions:

People often don't take advantage of the tabs and windows browser operations in ways that would help them. Although you might know how to open a link in a new tab, most people don't. Likewise, moving a tab out of the window (useful when you have a second monitor) or re-arranging tabs to reflect the organization of your work... just not widely done, even though these correspond naturally to physical actions on a real desktop.

Wide Monitors Can Actually Make Reading Tougher

Speaking of monitors, you’ve probably noticed that in transitioning to thinner LCD monitors, nearly every computer screen is in some kind of widescreen ratio. That’s great for games, for videos, and for those with a sense of how to arrange windows for optimal switching. For the rest of us?

We know that people often have rather wide screens and suffer reading disruptions as a side effect of trying to read lines that are 10 inches wide (that is, between 20-50 words wide). While most people feel that's uncomfortable, what they don't realize is that they can easily resize the window to make the (word) wrapping much better for them.

There Are Non-Condescending Ways To Improve Web Literacy

It is not easy to avoid condescension when explaining basic tech concepts, intentional or otherwise. Russell, and likely most of Google, understands this. To minimize the instances of "Here, just let me type that in," you need very short, very simple videos (unless, of course, the problem is with Flash videos not playing).

Russell has been working on this, in the form of "1 Minute Morceaux," videos that explain simple browser and search tactics that add up to a lot of help time. There’s spelling correction in Google search, fixing spelling in Docs and other apps, and making image search better by tweaking keywords.

"Search-by-Image Fu," by Daniel Russell, part of the "1 Minute Morceaux" series.

There are plenty more helpful videos out there to be found, and sending them along usually makes for a better experience than creating a to-do list during the holidays.

[Image: Flickr user Rafael Anderson Gonzales Mendoza]

Add New Comment


  • CloudFunded

    Hmm, I just thought of a solution to this. Design Chrome to automatically begin searching the page for a text string when the user begins typing outside of a fillable box. 

    You could also put a little Cmd-F Cntrl-F  icon next to the text search bar, so people who accidentally discover it in this fashion know how to find it again. 

    It also saves keystrokes for the power-users. The knew "in-the-know" scenario will be to skip Cmd/Cntrl-F entirely and just start typing. 

    Once Chrome does it, all the other browsers except the windows-garbage-which-shall-not-be-named will follow suit. 

  • Thomas James

    I think that Russel's research sounds very interesting. 

    I also believe that he may be jumping to conclusions about the added societal value of the increase in usage of Control+F. There appears to be a heavy glossing over here of the real impacts of human computer interaction. And the uptake in a usage statistic for a tool is hardly the most profound implication. i.e. How will you measure the new reality of people that don't read things as a totality because of this new technology? Finding a word or a term searched for is significantly different than the deeper knowledge gained from narrative absorption. Think of those people who read a twitter feed or a headline and believe that they understand a concept, and even worse may re-project a misrepresentation and pollute society's combined knowledge.
    Control+F does not a good researcher make.

  • Christine Bush

    Thanks for taking the time to take a cheap pot shot in this article at the Flash platform. So much for avoiding condescension, like my neighbors at Google have a clue what that means. I remember now why I dropped my FC subscription years ago.

  • A_Ware

    I got to the last point in the article (the articles) before I found anything I didn't know.  That last point however is pretty cool - thanks for the pointer to the videos, I'll share them around.

  • Lynn

    Slightly unrelated to the article. But the profile of a google researcher sounds interesting. Is there any website/url that will give me information on how to become one?

  • Tjbeckwith

    Love these video's.  The only way to learn these shortcuts currently is to be working with someone who sees how you are doing things on your computer and having them help you.  Often, they just want to "do it" on your computer instead of teaching you.  These videos will help those of us just learning to come up to speed without showing our stupidity!

  • Katie Gibbs

    As a laid-off K-12 tech teacher of 12 years (and 7 years in the "regular classroom" before that), I can confirm everything you said here. Most teachers I worked with had surprisingly poor tech skills (even simple academic tech skills, like command/control F and the ability to interpret Google search results, like understanding what the parts of a URL mean). As a result, their students never learned these important skills. I can only hope that as younger teachers keep entering the teaching pool, this will improve. (But sadly, those who go into teaching are not always the brightest folks for a variety of reasons....) 

    As school budgets dwindle, and librarians and tech teachers are cut, this problem will only get compounded. 

    Most people who read this comment will not understand just how bad this problem is. But trust me, it's a worse problem than you think. I'll share this article and hope that others will do the same.

  • Laci Lewis

    I love that they are making videos to help! It is near impossible to avoid condescension when explaining features (mostly because the learner feels like an idiot for not already knowing and they get upset about it). I would love to forward these videos to people!!!

  • Mike Lee

    It's unfortunate that so much productivity is forgone. Two things immediately came to mind:

    1) Introducing Ctrl+F to a colleague who was attempting to manually scroll through hundreds of spreadsheet rows (saved her hours that day, and countless hours over her career)

    2) Pointing people to search engines when they ask simple questions

    "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

  • Christophe Blythe

    "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." 

    I told some friends the very same thing when showing someone how to solve a tech-related problem.

  • Robert Freedman

    Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a day, light a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life. 

  • LuckyLee1

    Thanks for telling us about the features that are available.  I sure would have enjoyed learning how to use these features.  When can we expect the users guide to be with the article?

  • Brad Tayloe

    Have to admit, I didn't know about "Control/Commans+F"! Not ashamed to admit I learn something, or try to learn something new everyday about technology, and how to use it either for business or personal use. Thanks for sharing.

  • Forgetful Orange

    For some of us (who check the preference in Firefox) it's "just start typing" to search - no Command or F required.
    (Options | Advanced | Search for text when I start typing)

  • peteraltschuler

    Considering the Mac's presence in classrooms, it would have helped to have included the Mac equivalent of Control+F -- Command+F