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]

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