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So simple, your mother could do it

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Female computer users (particularly middle-aged or elderly ones) are often used as a hypothetical or even actual test of ease of use, on the assumption that if such a person can use a program, anyone can. No phrase expresses the meme of female technical ineptitude more neatly than "So simple, even your [grand]mother could do it."

This is a very commonly encountered form of condescension and is a frequent trope of sexist advertising portraying technical products as easy to use.

When showing women or mothers as users is a problemEdit

Not all portrayals of mothers or women doing geeky or technical things have this problem. It is a problem when combined with language or imagery that invites the intended audience to consider themselves more geeky/technical than the woman portrayed, especially when they are invited to do so simply on the basis that she's a woman/mother.

Examples Edit

The primary goal is to provide a messenger which is:
[…]
* intuitive: Ayttm should be almost instantly usable by your mother ;)

Ubuntu Edit

Using women, especially older relatives, as a test of ease-of-use has become an unfortunate trend in the Ubuntu community, to the point where it is beginning to appear in Ubuntu community magazines and core community wikis:

ResponsesEdit

  • Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier wrote in 2007 that It's time to retire the mom test.
  • In response to the "My mom runs ubuntu!" team, My Dad Runs Ubuntu was created by Leigh Honeywell
  • Ubuntu community responses to Martin Owens:
    • I wonder who has done the Father test by Melissa Draper
    • in Melissa's comments by Jono Bacon (Ubuntu community manager): "I think the general implication is that it refers to a parent, and while it could be called ‘The Parent Test’, some may want to apply it to their grandparents, brothers, sisters or others. As such, I wouldn’t read too much into the name."
    • Have you tried the “white boy” test? by Matt Zimmerman (Canonical CTO): "These generalizations idealize women as uninformed, technological novices or intellectual inferiors, which is particularly striking to some of us who learned computing from our mothers. This is not to say that statements like these are the origin of gender stereotypes, but they do display and reinforce these (often unconscious) beliefs."
  • Dave Winer's response to a NYT article called "A Twitter for My Sister". Winer: "It's always bothered me when people say they're making software for their mom, because that's a not-very-subtle dog-whistle that they're making it for people who are not technologically sophisticated.[... S]top using women as examples of confused computer users."
  • Grandma Got STEM blog

Alternatives Edit

The ubiquity of "my mom could" points to the value of Personas when used to guide the process of any product's design or post-design technical documentation. It's easier to evaluate or communicate ideas around a process being spoken to, if a realistic vision of its probable human user can be imagined. Unless of course you're designing for cats. Or orangoutangs. Or puppies.

There are many, many different bits to mental-models of humans in all societies—a person's primary occupation, their age; if an adult, the generation they grew-up in; socioeconomic class, their formal education, sub-culture or global culture; an urban, suburban, or rural dweller; and finally their comfort with other technologies (cars, home appliances, home electronics, science equipment, farm machinery, camera equipment, etc).

To DIY around any perceived fanciness, simply ask yourself if within the general slice of culture your thingamajigger will be used in—is your probable user's skill-level best described as novice, intermediate, experienced, or expert in similar kinds of technologies? My own mother is an expert film photographer, but a novice digital photographer; an expert at government filings, but a novice computer user; a baby-boomer, and an expert seamstress with analog equipment.

Usually "my mom" is a lazy way to frame novice users. Keep the allegories human and culturally centered, and think about cognitive and physical abilities (or lack thereof). Imagine characters from TV or movies, if that helps, and take it from there. Just—don't be bashing on your mom.

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