“Where’s my Googlebox?!” – adventures in search for silver surfers

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 for entirely understandable reasons. Our testers all came from the analogue world with little or no experience using computers.

So here are a few rough findings around the subject of search for older users new, or relatively new, to the Internet.

First let me describe the set up.

We had a vanilla install of Opera 10.10  with www.bbc.com/news set as the home page. We left the side panel open not because we were testing it as such but because we were curious to see how people used it when carrying out tasks. Finally we removed all additional toolbars that a user would not typically have.

The BBC search field centered at the top of the page below the browser address box.

The BBC search field centered at the top of the page below the browser address box.

Website search versus the browser address field

All participants had a hard time distinguishing between the search field in the web page (positioned top-centre just below the browser address box), the browser address box and the browser search box. When asked to look up www.tesco.com most would write the URL in the BBC search field and hit search.

When this didn’t work people would eventually venture up to the browser address box and start typing there  often typing text in the middle of the BBC URL.

Text typed into existing text in the browser address box

Others would click in the browser address box, highlight the existing URL then not know they could over-ride it by either writing  or using the ‘delete’ key. Only one tester knew to use the delete key. Not using the keyboard for anything other than typing text was a common theme as this group seemed to rely totally on the mouse to get about making me wonder if using a keyboard was only relied on when it had to be. I also had a sense that having a URL address box populated with text put people off using it.

The main, and obvious issue here though was people not being able to differentiate, or understand what the browser was and what web content was. The focus was very much on content with the browser menus and features ventured into as a last resort. This is something that we’ve already come a cross before in tests and is not an issue restricted to just this group.

Browser search versus website search

Very few of our testers ventured to the browser search box opting instead to use the search field of the site. When they did there was a degree of confusion around what the field did. Most looked for a ‘Go’ button and in lieu of that accessed the drop down menu (showing various search engine options).

The browser search field and drop down menu of search engine options

It was clear that typical user behavior was to take the hands away from the keyboard and use the mouse to hit ‘Go’. In other words hitting ‘Enter’ was not commonly known linking back to this groups preference to do everything (bar typing text) using the mouse.

Using the Home browser button

When testers got lost default behaviour was to go for the browser ‘Home’ button or, in a couple of instances close the browser and start again. I’m really glad I saw this as I’d all but written off the ‘Home’ button as a bit of browser UI clutter (based on personal and peer preference admittedly).

Given the combined preference to set Google search as the home page and the almost universal avoidance of the browser search field this made a lot of sense.

“Where’s my Googlebox?”

As we worked with more testers it became evident that the preferred home page of choice was Google search. This may well account for people confusing the BBC website search field for the browser address box.

My Mum in law first brought this to my attention when, after we’d just set her up with browsing. I heard her shout in absolute frustration from the other end of the flat:


That’s when I realised that familiarity is key and having a ‘safe’ place to start from and return to makes all the difference when starting out with using the web. It all links into the confusion between the browser, web page and definition of what a search engine is. Being able to search the web from the browser is a hard concept to grasp and understanding that the browser is not the web page, or vice versa, problematic.

This is of course the tip of the iceberg (and only part of what we looked at during our testing) but I remain convinced that we have a lot to learn from this group. Some of the issues and barriers they hit I’ve seen seasoned users stumble upon and I think if we are going to make truly usable websites and browsers we need to go back to the source and learn from new and older users.

A big learning point for me, with a developer hat on, is to consider how your content works within the context of the browser – something that is rarely considered, if at all. This was evidenced by the placement of the BBC search field in the top centre of the page under the browser address box. While I don’t think BBC are wrong it is something that is worth considering especially given they are such as well known website (globally) and is prone itself to being confused with a search engine.

A second learning point was to not fall into the trap of making assumptions. Not everyone knows what a browser is, not everyone uses the keyboard for simple shortcuts (including ‘Enter” and ‘Delete”) and what we may think as logical as a result of doing something repetitively may not be to others.

A big thank you

We couldn’t have done these tests without the wonderful Digital Access Media Group at Dundee University, especially David Sloan and Graeme Coleman. They provided the space, facilities, and hospitality for us and the wonderfully helpful participants who were great company as well as fantastic testers.

Thank you also to Lawrence Eng from Opera who flew in from San Diego especially to lend his extensive knowledge of Opera and user behaviour to the project.

We hope to do more testing and are already looking at how our findings can influence decisions on improving browser features and accessibility. Watch this space!

32 thoughts on ““Where’s my Googlebox?!” – adventures in search for silver surfers

  1. Every issue you list in this posting can be solved by 20 seconds’ instruction. Windows users are afraid of their computers (with good reason) and, despite the fact that Windows can be almost completely used without the mouse, use the keyboard for absolutely no purpose other than typing the bare minimum of text, as you found. Even with those facts, seriously: How hard is it to teach these people what three different fields do and that they can press a key when they’re done entering search text? Can’t their grandkids come over and teach them that?

    I tire of usability tests, which come out roughly eight months apart, that attempt to fault knowledgeable users for being knowledgeable. Knowledge can be gained. Actually heeding your advice would require Opera and every other browser publisher to completely redesign their software. Is Opera about to do that?

    I thought not.

  2. …then again, Internet Explorer has a clickable button after its Address bar and another after its Search bar. Hardly requires a complete redesign of the software to do that.

    The learning curve of doing anything with computers, with any operating system, is steep. It’s easily to slip back down it without frequent practice. And casual Internet users won’t be getting frequent practice. So even if their offspring or tech-savvy friend shows them something, it’s unlikely to become habit.

    Single-clicking some things whilst double-clicking others takes some getting used to…I expect we all had that experience. But since we were using computers all the time, we moved on quickly and didn’t go back. Same with more advanced behaviours, like managing multiple windows or opening links in new tabs. It comes with an amount of practice which is, in fact, absolutely vast.

    I wonder how the same test would fare in Google Chrome? One fewer textbox and the Google logo nearby might make the Address bar look like a more promising place to try searching from.

    I’ve noticed the browser search bar is hardly used by anyone. Sometimes I see them have a Google or Yahoo! toolbar installed, from which the only thing they do is search, whilst their browser already has a search box in the top-right corner…but set to the wrong provider. The provider they want is sometimes in the list but they never looked because it’s “weird”.

    I do all my searches from the browser’s search box. It avoids an entire page load and a single keyboard shortcut lets me request the results of the search in a new tab. (In Firefox, anyway.) Those reasons will only occur to and make sense to techies, though.

    Also, I sometimes hold a snack in my left hand whilst mousing with the other. It’s convenient when I can do everything with the mouse…although I do cheat by using context menus, drag-and-drop and sizing my applications windows carefully.

    Likewise, it’s convenient when I can do everything from the keyboard with my left hand whilst holding a phone in my right hand.

    Novice and casual users are what the defaults should be tailored to. So long as the toolbars can be customised, pro users can hide any buttons they don’t need.

  3. Joe is clearly an even better teacher than I thought. I have found it rather difficult to teach inexperienced computer users how to effectively user a web browser.

    To start with they often need to be taught the language of the web. Browser, search, home. All common words, but with different meanings in a new context. The web isn’t the only thing to learn about if this is the first experience with computers – what is that ‘Start’ button that is used to shut down the machine? There is a lot of competition for a new users attention.

    Additionally there is the stickiness of this new knowledge. These are not necessarily users who are firing up their web browser every day or even every week. In this case there isn’t the time to become familiar with the software, this isn’t the most important thing in their lives. Perhaps we should expect more commitment from these novice users, but I don’t see how it invalidates any effort to try and make things easier for them.

    Does Opera (or any other browser) need to be completely redesigned to make them more usable? Of course not, this is a ridiculous statement. How does not displaying the current URL in the address bar, to take one of Henny’s points, require a complete redesign of the browser? If the same information is provided in a different way how does it punish more knowledgeable users? It doesn’t.

    Surprisingly Joe seems to have forgotten that to make something more usable doesn’t require that every problem is fixed, or that the aim isn’t to make software usable only to the most basic users at the expense of others.

    Personally I welcome whatever information I can get. Single studies of anything in any field aren’t sufficient. We get accurate information only from repeated studies which allow us to spot trends and to ignore false positives.

    If I were to tire of such tests then I guess I’d just stop reading about them.

    Cheers Henny, more please.

  4. Joe, I think Ian’s comments are spot on and given his work in this area I value everything he says. I’d like to add to his comments some more food for thought.

    “20 seconds instruction” does not explain away the issues and confusion people have over search. Nor should “20 seconds of instruction” be a solution for making browsing more usable for people. Our job as web developers, software developers, technologists is to do as good a job at possible at making access to information usable, intuitive and accessible.

    I’d equate having their “grandkids come over and teach them” as being on a par with telling a blind person to get sighted assistance if they hit a barrier on the web. Again, it is our job in the industry to ensure that what we build is usable and accessible.

    To address another point raised:

    “Actually heeding your advice would require Opera and every other browser publisher to completely redesign their software. Is Opera about to do that?”

    Firstly I’ve not advised anything simply shared what we saw and provided some ideas around what I think this means. If Opera were going to just ignore this we would never have worked with the fantastic team at DMAG in the first place. Much of what we saw is about the relationship between web page and browser and is invaluable when informing decisions of improvements to existing features and implementing new ones not just as browser makers but also web developers.

    So yes Ian, we hope to do more and be able to share more. I for one see the frustration my Mum in law experiences every day and it’s unbearable. She, and millions of others, deserve better and there’s no reason we can’t learn from such tests and do better.

  5. Maybe Joe will also run training courses to teach people not to pull door handles that should be pushed or teach people tricks for remembering the counter-intuitive mapping of cooker hobs.

    Any designer worthy of the term should be able to design an interface that supports novice use — while also providing a migration path for expert use. In fact, HCI professionals have been doing just this for years.

  6. “I also had a sense that having a URL address box populated with text put people off using it.”

    That’s been happening to me during usability testing as well, with a broad range of user types.

  7. Ah good to know Jon. And interesting it has been with a broad user base as well, got any more insights?
    This was quite a small study so hearing people’s observations backing up what we saw and hearing more is really helpful.

  8. Well, it’s the same with any search box – leaving it empty puts people off as it doesn’t put it’s use into context, whilst have instructional text “type in here what you’re looking for and press search” type stuff, means that it becomes your most searched for phrase.

    When it comes to the address box, users click in here to do 2 things
    1) Edit an existing a address
    2) Delete it and go somewhere new

    So wouldn’t it be better to offer novice users these 2 simple options, so that whatever happens next is a requested action rather than an accidental one?

    Ultimately, no matter what it’s meant to do, any text box will be used for whatever purpose the user thinks it’s for.

    And Joe’s “the internet isn’t for these newbs!!!11one!” type comment is just silly. We sell, very successfully, online with average visitor age of 73. The demographic is there, they’re just being ignored.

  9. Recently I taught my boyfriend’s dad (another “silver surfer”) how to use a computer and the web and so many of your observations are exactly what I’ve experienced when teaching him.

    I found another issue that he had was understanding the concept of URLs and e-mail addresses. He frequently tried to send e-mails to URLs because they all have ‘.com’ at the end.

    The search box/address bar was also a big issue. I do wonder how these older people would react to using a hybrid address/search bar like that in Google Chrome, would it be a harder or easier concept to learn if you were new to the internet?

  10. I found this fascinating. Last year my brothers and I bought our 80 year old mother a Mac for her Christmas. She’s sharp, plays competitive bridge to a high standard, and can be easily motivated to overcome problems by cunningly planted comments like “oh, maybe you’re a bit old for this”.

    She repeatedly had trouble not because she was dim (which she emphatically is not!), but because she had no understanding of the grammar, or conventions of computers or the web. Saying something like “hit enter”, just produced a withering look, because it makes no sense at all unless you know that “hit” means “press” and “enter” is the return key, or rather the big one on the right.

    My mother looked at a computer screen the same way as she’d look at a magazine page. The buttons and hotlinks were just shapes and colours, with no more intrinsic meaning than the borders to text box.

    As Joe says, any one of these individual problems can be solved with 20 seconds tuition. The trouble was that my brothers and I knew far too much to know everything that my mother didn’t know, and would have to be shown. We sat with her and showed her enough to get her started, then we set up her up on Logmein so we could handle her problems remotely. We would never have been capable of anticipating all of these 20 second tasks.

    The experience made me see how dreadful even a Mac is for an elderly brand new user, but also convinced me that we were entirely correct to go for a Mac rather than a Windows PC. Mac bad, Windows worse!

    As for getting grandchildren to teach! Please! These kids can’t remember not knowing all these conventions. My 17 year old nephew couldn’t even show his grandmother how to switch on a satellite TV without provoking a row. His approach was basically to say “just switch the TV on with the remote control, and that’s it!”. He then ran off.

    When he was challenged with the fact that his grandmother was still staring at a blank screen we established that he’d not told her to switch on the satellite box first. “But that was obvious! Of course you’ve got to switch that on! She only asked me how to switch the TV on”.

    You can’t teach unless you can put yourself in the position of the pupil, and I think modern teenagers have lost that ability. It is all too instinctive, and teaching computer skills has become a skill that needs to be learnt on top of the technical knowledge required.

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  12. This is interesting, as it made me think about my own “user behaviour”. I never use the search box at top of a browser, in fact I rarely use any of the browser options/buttons at all. I have often wondered what is the point of having that search box there, and if anyone actually uses it – I would have thought majority go to their favourite search engine, and use that. I have got into habit of not using the URL bar either for URL’s, I just type in search terms and the browser default search engine returns results.

    Older eyes bring much needed freshness to website evaluation, as we in the industry are all guilty of making too many assumptions on the audience. It would be interesting to run same/similar test in different age groups for comparison. Impatience of age is very different to impatience of youth – impatience of youth is more to do with getting to a destination, whereas us older folk are more interested in having a clear path to get there.

    I have had very frustrating times teaching people about web browsing, and have found age is no factor to whether someone can grasp fundamental concepts or not. The reaction of younger people to not understanding what is being taught, is inclined towards blaming the teacher, whereas older people tend to blame themselves. Neither are right – as with anything learning is a curve – this is accepted in most things, but in technology the expectation is instant gratification. You can only be shown the path, nobody can hold your hand down it, you must experience it – otherwise nothing is truly learnt.

    “You can’t teach unless you can put yourself in the position of the pupil” – 100% accurate statement!

  13. A few years ago I came across this paper written in 2004, which helped me see older people’s attitude towards technology in a different way.

    Keller, van der Hoog & Stappers (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~15-821/CDROM/PAPERS/keller04.pdf) described a product designed to help parents keep in touch with grown up children. The developers “assumptions about digital illiteracy proved wrong. … (The parents) had a different approach to new technology than the design team. The parents regarded their new devices as black boxes in which their actions were magically translated into input and output. Instead of trial and error, both subgroups had an “error and stop” approach to new technology—they wouldn’t continue after encountering a problem.”

    The problem was not a lack of sophistication, but a rational assumption that the technology should be as robust and predictable as technology in other areas of their lives.

  14. By framing your findings as about silver surfers from ages of 60 to 80 rather than as about beginners to the web you have given these findings an ageist slant that isn’t the point. Or even true. What you learned applies to any beginner. Age is not a factor. I’ve worked with beginners of every age, and the beginner behaviors among them are consistent over every age range.

  15. Thank you for this article! It’s really indicative of how much more attention needs to be paid in browser interface design. I often help seniors with web and general computer issues, and can definitely attest that we have a long way to go regarding “pick up and play” ease of use for the uninitiated. But yes, like they say, if your mother/grandmother can’t use it, go back to the drawing board.

  16. Great article and some very insightful results and observations being made here.

    It brings to light the “expert error” and the assumptions that developers make in preparing the environment for real productivity and effectiveness.

    It makes a lot of sense that search is still our main entry point into contact. We need to filter the ocean of information that is out there otherwise it gets impossible to navigate without becoming overwhelmed.

    Thanks again for posting this. 🙂

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  18. Hi Virginia thanks for your comments – you raise some good points. I’m not sure I’d call our findings ageist as we were specifically testing the browser with this age group. As it turns out all were relatively new to the web which threw up some interesting questions as you’ve highlighted.

    I think Ian’s comments quite neatly capture this as he highlights how the language of the web can be confusing to new users and so on. One of our testers Lawrence is looking at replicating some of the tasks and questions in his user research with more seasoned users to see if issues are repeated which, like you, I strongly suspect will be.

  19. @Virginia DeBolt: As the facilitator of these evaluations, I’d like to add to Henny’s response to your suggestion of ageism in this work. I want to reassure you that there is nothing discriminatory (in a negative sense) of the work and the motivations behind it.

    As Henny says, this work was targeted at user evaluation of a specific browser with a specific group of people – inexperienced web users who are over 60. Their age means they have at least 55 years of life experience to recall – including memories and skills of using other (overwhelmingly non-digital) technologies that may have become long obsolete before the advent of the Web and web browsing technology. These are memories and skills that may not be available to younger technology developers, yet could be used to enhance usability as for example interface metaphors and analogies.

    We’re in the midst of further data collection and analysis, and the concept of life experience and impact on usability is one we want to investigate further. We also, of course, want to assess the impact of any design recommendations arising from the work on other groups of web users (including younger novice users).

  20. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    I teach people often, and every time I go “I don’t understand this”, they start explaining it to me. I have to stop them and say “No, by ‘I’, I meant ‘I, new user to your website’.” Fun, every time! 🙂

    By the way, about the search box and URL box in the browser, Firefox does a nice job of hiding a ‘go’ arrow and showing it only when one has clicked in to (or given the focus to) the box. I’m sure they observed the same kind of public, and decided to avoid the clutter when unnecessary; and then, make it visible when it really counts (i.e. when people expect to find a clickable button)

  21. Teaching beginners is my job, both the Seniors and the primary grade (K-6) children. One of my big frustrations has been trying to get them to use the keyboard. Kinders do everything with a mouse (they’re just learning their letters…) so the mouse habit is learned first. Only after they start learning their touch typing (3rd grade) can I even begin to get them to use the Enter key.. even so, they will still reach for the mouse. With the Seniors it is the same if they have NEVER learned touch typing.
    The children have the same trouble knowing in which box to type a search query. Unfortunately, the 20 min of instruction to know the difference between the browser and the web page, has not been given the priority it needs (by administrators, and teachers alike.)
    They just need to “get there fast!” So, hats off to the programmers who let the URL box be equally useful to Search. Now they can use the tool, without having to understand it. (The same as everyone who looks at an unfamiliar tool, and just uses trial and error to make it work.) I wish it were a properly organized world, but then, I didn’t build it!
    Very few people want to take the time to learn.. they just want results. So the more clues given on the page, the better, like a grayed out word IN the box saying “SEARCH”. Keep up the useability testing, and keep it intuitive..(not assumed!)

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  25. I just want to say that since I watch BBC news most days out of NY area stations, I see them offer their news also at ‘BBC.com/news’. Copper uses Google, which can’t seem to find that exact internet address. They offer many addresses for BBC news and other stuff, and even mention that particular one within the blurbs for the other connections, but a connection to that one is not within the first ten pages [100 choices]. When I was trying on Ask.com, I saw your page [on page 9]and it drew my interest–and I find that portal does exist! Of course I use the other connections, but wonder why the one they advertise is so difficult to find? Do they have any idea? Why don’t they advertise the first one Google offers instead? Well, Google is stupid in other ways, too. I, and many others can’t seem to get rid of ‘Safesearch’, so we use Ask.com, Bing, etc. Too bad for Google. As for the real purpose of your page and page design and usage——–don’t get me started! Thanks for the soapbox.

  26. Google is by far and away the easiest and cleanest interface to use. I’ve found an awful lot of people seem to have their browsers hijacked by search engines making themselves a user’s default. Normally this seems to occur when new pieces of software are added to machines. For the technologically uninitiated these sorts of trap door can really undermine confidence.

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