Study shows the reality of user skill levels

Jakob Nielsen is a renowned usability expert. He recently published the results of a study that looked at users’ ability to complete certain set tasks using a computer. The study, which was performed by the Nielsen Norman Group across thirty-three countries, draws some interesting conclusions.

The study reveals that “only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks.”


For the majority of computer users, accomplishing anything more complicated than the most basic tasks is a struggle. This is almost entirely due to poor user interface design. And the reason for this is simple: the people who create software are always at level 3. They create interfaces that seem perfectly logical and sensible from their own perspective, but which may appear hopelessly complicated to ordinary users.


Nielsen’s recommendation to software developers is to “keep it extremely simple, or two thirds of the population can’t use your design.”

I’ve long argued for user interfaces that can be adjusted to the user’s skill level. Microsoft Word is one of the most popular programs of all time, and it’s used by people of all skill levels. But it’s complicated: less-skilled users encounter difficulties with Word frequently. I’d like to see a user skill level setting in Word. At its lowest level, advanced features would be disabled, and the user interface would be locked, thereby preventing accidental changes to the UI such as moving toolbars.

You may have noticed that the user interface for a typical smartphone application is much simpler than an equivalent application on Windows. A smartphone app’s UI uses less screen space, and compensates for the lack of a keyboard, but the net result is an overall simplification. Microsoft has even forced a new smartphone-style interface into Windows 10, with mixed results: while the O/S may be somewhat easier to use for many people, advanced users struggle to find what they need behind the scenes.

Clearly, if computers are ever to become truly easy to use, much work remains.

Ranking yourself

If you take the time to read Nielsen’s article (it’s about four pages), try to determine your skill level based on the criteria he provides. You may be surprised at the results.

About jrivett

Jeff Rivett has worked with and written about computers since the early 1980s. His first computer was an Apple II+, built by his father and heavily customized. Jeff's writing appeared in Computist Magazine in the 1980s, and he created and sold a game utility (Ultimaker 2, reviewed in the December 1983 Washington Apple Pi Journal) to international markets during the same period. Proceeds from writing, software sales, and contract programming gigs paid his way through university, earning him a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) degree at UWO. Jeff went on to work as a programmer, sysadmin, and manager in various industries. There's more on the About page, and on the Jeff Rivett Consulting site.

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