The Dad Test, or how un-intuitive the Internet really is

In the summer of 2006 a strong storm front swept across the midwest and brought heavy rains, hail, and tornadoes. The storm system flooded city streets in my small hometown of Salem, Indiana and the surging flood water made its way to a local furniture factory where much of the town was employed. The flood heavily damaged the factory and it’s wood products and inventory. Having been under intense pressure from overseas manufacturers, and now with a flooded and under-insured facility nearly destroyed or washed away, the factory owners decided that was the final nail in the coffin and they closed the factory. The last of many generations, including my dad, would never walk back into work.

After the factory closed hundreds of workers were placed on unemployment as the economic situation across the United States was worsening. My dad worked there since he was 18 years old, and now 35 years later he found himself without a job.

My father is the uncanny embodiment of middle-America: middle-aged, from a rural background, worked hard, solidly lower-middle class thanks to a low cost of living surrounding him, and uneducated no further than some high school courses.

In Indiana, unemployment works like a lot of government assistance programs (though unemployment can hardly be called assistance since people pay into it, which is where the word “insurance” comes from there). You sign up online, you answer a few questions, you go about your day.

Indiana’s Workforce Development website works like this:

  1. Create an account
  2. Establish some security credentials
  3. Answer a few questions about your prior employment
  4. Answer a few questions about your current job search or educational advancement
  5. Submit and await funds to be deposited via ACH deposit on to a state-issued debit card

Each week you are on unemployment you go through a similar process aside from establishing your account.

My dad has never used the Internet. He’s never used a computer. His experience with typing is non-existent, even on a typewriter. He is completely left behind by technology.

On his first week of unemployment he went to the local WorkOne office and sat down at a computer. However, because he has never used one, even something like “turning it on” was beyond comprehension. By law, WorkOne and all other State employees are prohibited from filling out the application for unemployment (or any other benefit like welfare, TANF, SNAP, etc.) on behalf of the citizen. Dad sat there for 4.5 hours staring blankly at a screen that meant nothing to him before an employee gave in and helped him by pointing and telling him to “Click this” and “Press this key”, one-at-a-time. Of the 4 computers they had in this small office, they needed the machine. This being a small town, I knew the woman who worked there and she called me to say, “Can you help your dad next week? We can’t afford to have him sit there for hours.”

A week later I traveled to meet my dad and help him fill out the application and hopefully teach him what to do for the future. As a web developer what I was about to witness was incredibly fascinating.

First, he was unaware of how to really hold a mouse. He initially held it like a TV remote, idly clicking in mid-air and pointing it at the monitor. The motor control he had to utilize was difficult to master once I showed him how the cursor reacts to the mouse movements.

Typing was also incredibly difficult. My dad struggles with spelling, but even if when he didn’t, finding the keys was a hunt-and-peck affair. The layout of the keys made no sense to him. That’s not to say keyboard layout is inherently wrong or bad, but it just didn’t intuitively mean anything to him to see a QWERTY layout. DVORAK would have been no different. Only ABCDEF would have made some sense.

To say, “Open your browser and visit IN.gov/dwd”, was completely useless. He had no idea what a browser was, what an icon was, what the Start menu meant, what a URL was, or why or how I knew “IN.gov/dwd” magically did something. URL structures were a figment of someone’s imagination and made no intuitive sense. Couple that with often confusing state agency acronyms and anagrams and it was even more confusing.

To point to the URL bar on an otherwise blank screen in Internet Explorer (or any browser) meant nothing. “Why would you click in this box and not the others?” Clearly unlabeled fields was an impediment.

Upon visiting the site, one needs to login. Knowing he did this last week I asked what his user ID and password were. He couldn’t remember making either, but had a piece of paper from the prior week that the employee had jotted those pieces of information on. Further complicating matters is they used a fictional email address, because Dad doesn’t have and has never had any use for an email address. So we needed to set that up to at least come to me instead.

Logging in was an adventure. There was no real-world concept to what he was doing. Typing his username, which consisted of letters and numbers, was unintuitive. He couldn’t understand why a simpler variation (just his name) couldn’t be used (because it was already reserved). I tried to explain it by comparing it to physical addresses used by the Postal Service, because even the obvious metaphor or actual people’s names doesn’t hold true because plenty of people can have the same name.

Typing his password was incredibly cumbersome because as he explained, “How am I supposed to know what I’m typing if I can’t see the letters? It’s just dots.” In this case, asterisks were being displayed instead of characters and this, coupled with his poor typing ability, made him further frustrated. One can see why most people don’t use strong passwords.

Once logged in users are required to verify places they applied for employment. In Indiana you have to apply to at least three places a week or make progress in your education by enrolling or completing training, courses, etc. This requires you to know the name, address, and phone number of businesses you’ve applied to in the past week so the State can do random audits. This also means you have to look up those phone numbers and addresses, which warrants a trip to Google. Even the name “Google” brought quizzical looks from my father.

In all, it took about 2 hours to make it through the process that any typical user could handle in about 10 minutes. Looking at it in hindsight it’s clear how utterly clumsy and cumbersome the online process is compared to just “here’s a piece of paper to fill out”.

Dad was incapable of repeating the process the week after, just like you or I would be incapable of watching and repeating an appendectomy. I described that this process is probably “more of a feature than a bug” because clearly the people most likely to use these systems would have little to no experience with a computer or access to a computer and/or Internet at all. The fewer people that sign up, or can sign up, the better it benefits Indiana’s then-rapidly depleting unemployment insurance fund. Plus, Dad wasn’t even sure what to do with the debit card he received in the mail. He literally took it to the bank teller each Monday and asked for all the money in cash because he didn’t know where, or how, to use an ATM. Or how to swipe at a checkout counter at a store. Nor did he want to try out of fear and embarrassment.

And it’s also clear that we have a lot of work to do before everyone is capable of using technology for their own needs. States in particular have to be careful and considerate of “designing for the least common denominator”, especially in the form of technology and skill. Web designers like myself should consider what I call “The Dad Test”, which is me asking myself, “Could my Dad do this?” The answer will probably always be “No”, but at least it gives guidance on how we can simplify and make more items intuitive. For instance, underlining links and having button-looking objects wasn’t difficult to understand. Apple was probably right to use those skeumorphic designs for as long as they did, too.

Just remember “The Dad Test” (you can substitute “grandma” or “great grandpa” if you’d like). It’ll help you develop better interfaces and layouts and be a better designer.

About the author

Justin Harter

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