Click the Cog, Folks

The more I talk to baby boomers – people in my age group – about the way they use the Internet, one fact is consistent and clear: we are sometimes stumped by interfaces and often abandon websites in sheer confusion.

We have to remember that most websites these days are being designed by people of our children’s generation, and they use interfaces in ways we never consider. This is a product of their growing up playing video games, using complex remote control devices and being trained to use keyboards and navigation devices like mouses and game controllers to interact with screens – skills our generation didn’t hone at the tender ages our kids did. If you’ve ever handed your new phone off to your high schooler to solve some mysterious interface obstacle, you know what I mean – or if you watched a kindergartener pick up an unfamiliar game controller and immediately, intuitively understand how to make the character jump, twirl and swipe a hidden gem from the dragon you’ve seen this proof.

(I, for one, have never understood video game controllers or what they made the screen do, or why it is interesting in the first place. It just isn’t my thing, and I sometimes wish I had more interest in games and their usability, as it might be helpful if I wanted to make websites for children – which I don’t – but this “converse knowledge” is useful as I work to create websites for baby boomers, seniors, GenX and Y, and everyone else.)

Anyway, all this leads me back to the premise that websites these days are using a visual shorthand that is sometimes confounding to middle-aged users who don’t decode iconography as naturally as people under the age of, say, 35 do. This year’s Google Gmail interface overhaul, that then impacted most of their related services, produced confusion among users of many age groups, but it is a perfect example of the minimalistic and sometimes ambiguous UI design that can drive otherwise-satisfied users away from a great website.

The best advice I can offer is: if you find you are lost on a website – can’t login, can’t logout, can’t find the basic tools you need to do whatever it is you went to the site for in the first place – look for and then click the little cog icon. Chances are you’ll find it in the upper right corner of the screen, and it will be very small.

It seems that at some point in the past 4-5 years, a 20-year-old decided this would become Internet design law and didn’t tell us about it. This one element can be the key to unlocking the graphical code that you’ll start to see everywhere once you recognize it – this new iconography can be found everywhere from a smart phone to my new gas range’s “control panel” (because knobs, dials and buttons aren’t cool anymore – we have control panels on ovens!). Get used to it; this convention is universal and we’re still young enough to learn and adapt.

If you’re lost on a screen or device control panel … look for the cog.

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