Scary Internet

According to Race Online 2012 there are “9 million adults in the UK who have never used the Internet“ that’s a fifth of the adult population.

Back in the good old pre-Dot-com-crash days we, as web designers, used to make fun of how little the clients understood, but the truth is we were all just insecure and learning about the possibilities of this new digital world in parallel with our clients. The Internet was new to all of us.

Today is different. We are either experienced veterans or young web professionals with a degree in interactive design. We lead the way for other power users including our clients who are all web savvy as well by now.

As such it is easy for us to forget that the Internet is still a new frontier for many people. There are still a significant number of entry-level users facing the same obstacles we did… or worse.

Today’s websites are often geared towards power users with next door to no patience. We provide nicely designed portal sites with lots of options for the web savvy user. But what looks like a great collection of helpful road signs to you and me might as well have been hieroglyphs written upside down to a person who have never accessed the Internet

And while the veteran web users have had the chance to grow up with an increasing complex web experience, entry-level users are thrown into the deep end. The equivalent would be to ask a person who have never even driven a car to fly a multi-million fighter jet while being attacked by a fleet of Martians.

No I am not exaggerating here’s an example:

The day I deleted the entire Internet for my dad

Some years back, after spending a significant time teaching my dad how to use a computer mouse, I created an email account for my dad on one of my domains. A while later I needed to move servers so asked him whether he was using his email at all. Having never received an email from him the answer “No” came as no surprise.

I wiped my domain and moved it to a different server.

A few months later my dad called complaining that the Internet was gone. After a bit of questioning it turned out that the Internet to him was the links inside emails from his friends. If he wanted to visit a website he would find the appropriate email and click the link.

He had no understanding of the difference between emails and browsers. To him his emails were the Internet. I had effectively deleted the whole Internet for my dad when I wiped his emails!

What can we do to help entry-level users?

Just because a person has never used the Internet doesn’t mean they are stupid. Nor does it mean that they no experience with digital surfaces.

Ofcourse we can create user journeys and a web interface based on the assumption that everybody coming to the website are entry-level users, but realistically that is never the case so we have to maintain some sort of complexity not to scare (or bore) power users away.

The first step is to look at interfaces the entry-level users are familiar with from their everyday lives and there are loads:

  • TV – Very few people have televisions without a digital interface or a remote control.
  • TeleText – An obvious extension of the TV interface.
  • Games consoles – A lot of money goes in to developing super simple interfaces everybody can understand.
  • Kitchen appliances – They all come with digital interfaces these days.
  • Car dashboards, toys and work machinery also give hints to good interface designs.


We can also help by creating a less scary digital environment and really it is the little things that help such as:

  • Phone number – Nothing is more comforting for an insecure user than to know they can call for help if needed.
  • Chat facility – Eventhough it is a digital entity, entry-level users appriciate the ability to talk to a real person. Fact is, this can even work with a virtual assistant system as long as the illusion of a real person isn’t compromised.
  • Accreditation – For example If the site sells travels, make sure to have industry logos such as ABTA or ATOL. It all goes to create a comfortable environment.
  • Clear labelling – Yes, power users know the logo goes to the homepage and know the box top right is the search box. Entry-level users do not.

And let’s not forget the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Things like readable fonts, clear links, copy written in plain English all helps entry-level users beomce more confident in their online choices.

It is our responsibility to help

According to Race Online 2012 four of the nine million non-web users are among the most disadvantaged in society (39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed, 19% are families with children).

It is our social responsibility as web professionals and website owners to help them confidently navigate online. And we need to help now as the Internet is rapidly becoming embedded in everything we do and everything we use.

Further reading


Have any experience with helping entry-level users? Or have an opinion on the subject? Please share your thoughts.