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Don’t overestimate your market

How do you compare to the general public in terms of your computer skills?

The answer may be: much better than you would guess.

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., web usability consultant, has issued a report summarizing users’ computer skills as published in 2016 by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The study tested almost 216,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 in 33 countries between 2011 and 2015.

What the test looks like

Here are sample test questions used to determine each participant’s computer skills:

  • “Find all emails from John Smith.” That’s level 1.

  • “Find a sustainability-related document that was sent to you by John Smith in October last year.” Level 2.

  • “Find he percentage of emails sent by John Smith last month that were about sustainability.” Level 3.

Then there are two more categories:

  • Below level 1: The very lowest skills level, which somehow is differentiated from . . .

  • “Can’t use computer.”

Yes, I can pass all three tests. Most likely, you can too.

Yikes! More than a quarter of adults can’t use a computer

Even more surprising is the percentage of the population at each of these levels:

  • Level 1: 29% of adult population

  • Level 2: 26%

  • Level 3: only 5%!

  • Below level 1: 14%

  • Can’t use computer: 26%

The achievement levels are surprisingly low, perhaps in part because some of the data date back to 2011 because it took so many years to assemble and analyze all the numbers.

Further surprising is the low percentage of Americans with the highest level of computer skills studied. It’s only 5%. (Singapore and Japan are ahead with 8% scoring at level 3.) Thirty-one percent of the U.S. population scores at levels 2 or 3.

To Nielsen, this means the need for extreme simplicity in usability. It also means that it is quite easy for professionals to remain blissfully unaware of users’ mastery of even the simpler functions.

How about reading literacy?

The data on computer skills prompted me to question the public’s ability to read English.

The Institute of Education Sciences in its most recent study (2003) found that only 15% of adult Americans could function at the highest levels in measurements of prose, document and quantitative skills. This definition of full literacy is equivalent to a university undergraduate level. The “average” American is reported to read at a first or second grade level.

It is important to consider the computer skills and literacy levels of our audiences in our communications. We cannot assume that they function at the highest levels, but we don’t want to insult their intelligence either.

Food for thought.



Originally posted 12-5-16

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