No one wants to be a beginner. Most of the time and in most areas we try to escape this stage as quickly as possible. When we learn a language we attend a language course in the hope to be able to have a decent conversation within weeks. When we learn to ski we hire a ski instructor in the hope to get down the slopes without breaking any bone after a few hours. The effort we invest has one goal: to move on to an intermediate level.
Most users are beginners just for a short period.
With digital products the story is the same. No one wants to be a beginner. When we buy a new phone we quickly find out how to call, access internet, read e-mails, access social media, etc. Unfortunately more often than not this can be quite frustrating. Being a beginner means to be incompetent. Fortunately, although we all have to start there, no one stays there. Beginners move quickly into an intermediate level of experience. An interface, system or product should facilitate this passage and move beginners smoothly onto the next level.
Another user group is the experts. Experts know the product, use it frequently, and yearn for more sophisticated features and shortcuts to everything. They are not disturbed by added complexity and they appreciate new, powerful features. The needs of this group are important when designing a product. However only a small percentage of users actually move on to become experts as shown in this figure:
By looking at the bell curve we can voice a clear statement: most of the users are part of the intermediate level.
Although many design efforts are concerned with these two categories, beginners and experts make up only a very small percentage of the total users. Like most population distributions, the experience level of people performing an activity follows the classic statistical bell curve where the majority falls into the middle section. When comparing number of people against skill level, we find a relatively small number of beginners on the left, a few experts on the right, and the majority – the intermediate users – in the center.
The bell curve is a snapshot in time. It is static. But our users shift from one category into another. As said above, most beginners stay in this category only for a short period of time and then move into the middle where they probably will stay. Beginners quickly improve but they seldom move on to become expert users.
The challenge of maintaining a high level of expertise also means that experts tend to shift towards the middle (even though not at the same rate as beginners).
All users gravitate towards the central part of the skill spectrum. Consequently most of our design effort should be directed at intermediates. As Alan Cooper and Robert Reichmann state in their book About Face:
Our goal should be neither to pander to beginners nor to rush intermediates into expertise. Our goal is threefold: to rapidly and painlessly get beginners into intermediacy, to avoid putting obstacles in the way of those intermediates who want to become experts, and most important of all, to keep perpetual intermediates happy as they stay firmly in the middle of the skills spectrum.
Intermediates are the big majority of users. User research should focus on their needs and goals and the interface should be designed for the intermediate user.
Intermediates usually establish the functions they use with regularity and those that they use only rarely. This tools or functions should take center stage in the interface, be easy to find and to remember.
Intermediates don’t need scope and purpose explained (like beginners) and shouldn’t be bothered with guided tours or explanations directed at beginners.
Great help options are tooltips to remember functions and reference materials in form of online help. This allows interested intermediates to dig deeper and learn, as long as they don’t get overloaded.
Intermediates usually know that there exist more advanced features and although they’ll never use them it gives reassurance that they chose the right product.
A well designed product should address all three of these groups with a special weight on the most numerous group: the intermediates. This means that a product must provide features for expert users and support for beginners. But most of the time we must apply our talents, time, and resources to designing the best experience for our intermediates.
Resource: About Face – Chapter 3 (Alan Cooper and Robert Reichmann)