Your Users Might Not be as Tech-Savvy as You Think


Robyn Collinge

February 16, 2017

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Thanks to their specialist skillsets and proximity to a given project, UX Designers are set apart from the majority of their target audience. As Jakob Nielsen explains, “one of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that you are not the user. This is why it’s a disaster to guess at the users’ needs.” However, there’s another fundamental ability that can be damaging to assume of your user: Computer literacy.

Only 5% of the population have high computer-related abilities

Any member of a user experience project can be considered as significantly more of a digital native than the general population. This doesn’t just mean the Developers and Software Engineers, even those you would consider the ‘less-technical’ members of your team (i.e. little, old Copywriters like me) are only less-technical in comparison with the Engineers – in fact, they actually still have much stronger technical skills than most.

To quantify this assumption, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) set out to collect data between 2011 and 2015 across 33 different countries, in order to measure the difference between the ‘broad population’ and the ‘tech elite’. Testing 215,942 people between the ages of 16 and 65, through a series of 14 computer-based tasks, researchers amassed some surprising results.


Throughout their testing, the OECD defined 4 levels of computer proficiency based on the types of tasks users could complete successfully. Here’s what they found:

Below Level 1: 14% of the adult population

In place of a term like ‘Level 0’, this is how researchers referred to the lowest skill level. Users that placed below Level 1 were able to solve problems by using one function, i.e. deleting an email message in an email app.

Level 1: 29% of the population

This means users were able to operate “widely available and familiar technology applications, such as email software or a web browser, [where] there is little or no navigation required to access the information or commands required to solve the problem.”

Level 2: 26% of the population

Tasks at this level required some navigation across pages and applications in order to solve a problem. OECD exemplifies a Level 2 task as, “You want to find a sustainability-related document that was sent to you by John Smith in October last year.”

Level 3: 5% of the population

This is the most skilled group of users. At this level, participants were able to navigate across pages and applications and use multiple tools to reach a solution, for example, “what percentage of the emails sent by John Smith last month were about sustainability?”

You might have noticed that these numbers don’t add up to 100%. Well, that’s because a large proportion of the respondents – a surprising 26% – did not even attempt the tasks, being unable to use computers.


What’s more, one might assume that those living in more privileged countries would display a higher percentage of Level 3 skills. However, the OECD’s research saw that even when looking at the richest countries of the 33 included, those with strong technology skills only make up between 5-8% of their country’s population. As the Norman Nielsen Group concludes, “if you think something is easy, or that ‘surely people can do this simple thing on our website,’ then you may very well be wrong.”

How does this impact your UX choices?

Be accessible

It may be the word on everyone’s lips in the UX community, but it’s really important to adhere to accessibility guidelines and regulations where possible. When designing, try to keep all kinds of users in mind – take a look at our tips and tricks for designing for both color blindness and dyslexia – and ensure any images or graphics are carefully selected. Audio descriptions of each page are also extremely helpful for those who require some extra guidance.

Keep it simple

Minimize the number of options available to your user and, where you can, guide them towards a limited amount of the most probable options with an intuitive UX and good use of microcopy. We’ve all heard the age old saying, “assume makes an ass out of you and me”, keep it in the back of your mind and approach both your design and content with the assumption that your user has zero knowledge of your product, service, or industry.

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Open the channel for feedback

Allow your visitors to communicate with you as effortlessly as possible. With a feedback solution like ours, you can easily open up the channel for users to give you feedback; letting you know what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t.

Don’t forget your offline presence

It may seem incomprehensible in today’s culture but you are going to have customers that simply don’t have access to a computer, never mind the knowledge of how to use one. Make sure your offline touchpoints are also in tip top shape, a warm and helpful phone manner can really be the difference that sets you apart from competitors.

Do you have any tried and tested techniques for ensuring your product or service is accessible to everyone? Let us know in the comments or cram it into 140 characters @usabilla.

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