Radio buttons apparently not yet common knowledge

Most days I feel I do a pretty good job of putting myself in the new user’s shoes, but there are times that I’m reminded I need to take a step back and ask, “Is this concept really common knowledge, or do I just think it is because I’ve known it for so long?” This is the “curse of knowledge,” a term popularized by Chip and Dan Heath, which suggests once a person has too much knowledge about a field, it is difficult for the person to imagine what it is like not to know. (Chip Heath gave this example, in an interview in The McKinsey Quarterly, saying “The IT person knows so much that he or she can’t imagine knowing as little as the rest of us.”)

Even as an advocate for new technology users, I’m occasionally reminded of the need to be diligent in reassessing my own “accursedness.” Recently, I had the opportunity to take an on-line survey offered by a Fortune 100 company. It was the standard radio button survey with five options for each question. You might think that no interface element is as simple as a set of radio buttons, but when I saw the link “Instructions for taking this survey,” I was curious. What could be simpler than a radio button based survey? To my surprise, the instructions contained something worded like the following:

Place the arrow on the circle for your selected response, and left click on your mouse. A black dot should appear in the circle for your selected response. To change your answer, place the arrow on the circle for your new response and left click on your mouse. The black dot will now appear in the circle for your new response.

I have to admit that my first thought was, “Is this really necessary? In this day and age, do users really not know how to operate a set of radio buttons?” But then the amazement gave way to one of those “ah-ha” moments. Here is a survey offered by a major corporation, one which has surely conducted its share of surveys. So it stands to reason that, based on their experience, they’ve discovered there are indeed some users who don’t understand how to operate radio buttons enough to take a simple survey.

After I recovered from the initial astonishment, it occurred to me that I had at one time considered omitting an explanation of radio buttons from my upcoming book. I eventually decided that, though they’re seemingly all too common, radio buttons should be discussed if only for the sake of completeness. This recent survey experience confirms that perhaps I should take one more look at that section prior to publication to ensure I didn’t leave the topic too thin.

Moreover, this experience is a good reminder for all of us who endeavor to explain technology that we are indeed “cursed” with both knowledge and, perhaps more than we realize, the assumption that some topics are too simple to require explanation.

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