Exploring the mind of the Internet beginner

The search for information was explored from two ends of the age spectrum in “Helping Children Find What they Need on the Internet” at The New York Times and “Where’s my Googlebox?!” – adventures in search for silver surfers at iheni :: making the web worldwide.

The Google research reported on in the NYT focused on search terminology problems among children. The article pointed out,

Google has long known that it can be difficult for users to formulate the right keywords to call up their desired results. But that task can be even more challenging for children, given that they do not always have the right context for thinking about a new subject.

The research reported at iheni was done by Opera, the browser company. Here’s the introduction to that report,

I forget that at its core the web is all about ”search” so it was humbling and eye opening to spend two days in the company of 8 silver surfers aged 60 to 80 testing Opera desktop and observing, amongst other things, how they went about carrying out searches.

It’s more or less the first skill you learn when you’re new to the web (our testers had between a month and 18 months experience each) and by far the most essential. It took me right back to how I felt when I first used the web and it was fascinating to watch how people tried to differentiate between web content, a browser and a search engine, often getting it wrong but for entirely for logical reasons. Our testers all came from the analogue world with little or no experience using computers.

The Google report talked about the fact that a child had problems searching on a question about when the President’s birthday would be next year. The child didn’t realize he needed to know when the President’s birthday was before he could learn when that day would fall next year. Is this a problem that only a child would have, or would an older beginner to the Internet not realize you couldn’t just search for “when is the President’s birthday next year” and get an answer?

The Opera study found that participants had a hard time distinguishing between the search field in the web page, the browser address box and the browser search box. To Opera’s credit, they did not try to say that only the older adults they tested would have these problems. The report did have an ageist slant, but it also pointed out that these were issues belonging to beginners. Do children have problems distinguishing between the function of various search boxes found in browser windows and chrome? I’m guessing yes.

Once you know what you are doing, it’s really hard to remember how to think like a beginner and help beginners learn the basics. In my opinion, age is not a factor in beginner’s mind. That’s why articles like Opening a Window on the Mac or Fill Forms Quickly with the Tab Key are so important on the Internet. Check the positive response to my TGB Elder Geek post on the CSS border property at Time Goes By. The 60 to 80 year old crowd reading that blog don’t seem afflicted by age, only by beginner’s mind.

I’m not an expert on the beginner’s mind, but I don’t think its age dependent, especially with something so non-intuitive as the Internet. The article about the Google study reported some ideas that Google in working on to make search easier. It would be good if thinking like that were applied to everything about the Internet and the way we approach it.

Cross posted at BlogHer.
Related posts: CSS3, Silver Surfer Humbug.

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