My first real encounter with a usability challenge in a digital environment happened when I worked as a file clerk in a medical records office. We converted our office from paper records to electronic and had to learn a whole new computer-based record keeping system. One of the women who worked in the file room had never used a computer before. It was my job to teach her this new electronic system.
The biggest challenge for me was that I failed to comprehend the depth and breadth of my coworker’s digital illiteracy.
She didn’t know how to use a mouse. How do you teach someone to use a data system which functions through a GUI when they don’t know how to use a mouse?
Before I could even begin to teach her the new record keeping system, I had to teach her how to use computer peripherals.
I came up with an education plan. Some challenges I anticipated: I knew there would be a learning curve for her to develop an instinct for when to click vs. double-click (not to mention right-click or click-and-drag). I knew she would need some time to learn where to put the cursor in order to click the right things—she kept trying to click with the base of the cursor rather than the point.
But the most unexpected challenge in teaching this woman how to use a mouse was this:
She kept looking at the mouse—at her hand on the mouse—and not at the computer screen. It was very difficult for her to physically manipulate the mouse and keep her eyes on the screen. She wanted to watch was she was doing, and what she was doing was using her hand.
Getting her to look at the screen while her hand was using the mouse was the single biggest challenge we had to overcome.
This prompted me to think more about how we use tools in general.
Consider a hammer, a chisel, a paint brush, a pen—these tools become extensions of our hands and our awareness of our own body schema expands to include the tool. We use the tool (our extended hand) to manipulate an object—a nail, a block of stone, an expanse of canvas, a piece of paper.
When we manipulate an object, our attention is on the object. When we hammer a nail, for example, we don’t look at the end of the hammer, we keep our eyes on the head of the nail. But when we use tools to manipulate physical objects in space, the tool stays in extensive contact with the object (hammer to nail, chisel to stone, brush to canvas, pen to paper). As such, the tool spends most of its time in close proximity to the object.
So while our eyes may be focused primarily on the object, the tool also spends most of its time fully within our field of vision. This imbues the tool with intrinsic physical priority in our arena of awareness.
By contrast, consider how we use a computer mouse:
Our hand controls the mouse which manipulates the cursor on the computer screen. But the mouse (the tool) never comes into direct physical contact with the cursor (the object). There’s a fundamental visceral disconnect between the tool and the object.
Moreover, the distance between the mouse and the cursor is much greater than the typical distance between a tool and an object—the mouse sits off to the side and below the screen. Sometimes completely outside our field of view, and almost always far enough into the periphery of our sight that the vision center of our brain just ignores it.
As such, a mouse has far less physical priority in our arena of awareness than most other types of tool.
Considering that our brains and bodies are wired to interact with and manipulate physical objects in real space, using a computer mouse is actually rather unnatural. It takes conditioning to get used to it.
Thus, my coworker kept looking at her hand and not at the computer screen.
Experiences like this emphasize for me just how much we can’t anticipate when it comes to usability in digital environments. It highlights how limited we are in our ability to address the full range of possible usability issues through interface design, graphic design, and UX.
Some digital literacy issues extend far deeper than we realize.
Usability has to remain agile and responsive for this very reason. We have to be ready and able to adapt when entirely unanticipated issues crop up for our users.
Most importantly, for organizations like public libraries which serve digitally illiterate populations, usability initiatives must be embedded in comprehensive digital literacy education.
Your digital resources can’t be usable if your users are digitally illiterate. That’s axiomatic.