Naive Users May Not Be What You Think

by on February 11, 2010

Here’s a fascinating incident. In a nutshell: net news site posts a news article about some Facebook business development with AOL. Nothing remarkable about that. But then something strange starts to happen. Hundreds of people start posting comments complaining about how their beloved Facebook has changed and they can’t log in … to

The article has since been updated to point out to people that they’re not on Facebook (have a look at the comments while you’re at it).

It seems these people may have been used to typing in the words “facebook” and “login” into Google, in order to start the journey to their favourite social networking website. However, the Googlebot being what it is,’s article had at some point ranked higher for those keywords than Facebook itself. Used to clicking on the first result to get to Facebook, these people then became rather confused.

This sort of behaviour (see also “What is a web browser?“) is fairly well documented. Many Internet users think the web is Google, and often don’t type in URLs at all. Interesting though that behaviour is, it’s not what I find fascinating about this incident. Instead, what’s thought-provoking is that while an apparently large number of people are being tripped up by their own mental models of how the machinery of the web works, they are clearly NOT confused with the details of the way Facebook itself works. At least, if they were, I would presume they wouldn’t sing its praises so highly here.

FB isn’t, I would suggest, an easy system to understand. It’s full of vague concepts, tricky public/private chicanery, unique and regularly changing conventions and concepts. When I consider that I sometimes have problems using FB myself, this indicates it may not follow that what I sometimes class as “naive” Internet behaviour (like using Google as some kind of bookmark repository) has anything to do with the level of sophistication in the use of UIs in general.

Who am I to say that the people on the thread might also be avid Google Wave users, or have become adept in the use of Azureus (which, incidentally, fairly makes me cry)? So the really scary thing (from a UX design perspective) is that what you observe people doing in one context may not be applicable at all in another. Put that in your persona and smoke it.


It’s a testament to Google’s speed that this method of accessing Facebook works enough to be these people’s default.

What I find alarming about FB is that it appears to be full of people who are happy to use applications written by (who?) that ask them if it’s okay that “This application will have access to everything you have entered into Facebook, and everything your friends have too. In fact, you are giving some anonymous unvalidated programmer more access to your personal information than you have to your closest friends.”

Just so they can pretend to feed a virtual chicken. Or something.

The willingness of people to abandon privacy to feed a virtual chicken is perhaps also part of an interesting observation that the mighty Louise Hewitt point out to me: that people will learn to do what they are motivated to do. If the efficacy of good design is determined mainly by how motivated people are to use the system, then that means improving the UI for (say) something like Facebook or eBay or Amazon is going to be less effective (on any measure) than improving it for some boring old rubbish like an intranet new hire form.


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