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."
When showing women or mothers as users is a problem
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.
- Doug Belshaw's 'mother test'
- Ayttm, an instant messaging client for Linux and Windows. The Ubuntu package description quotes the following from Ayttm's man page for version 0.6.3 (and older):
- The primary goal is to provide a messenger which is:
- * intuitive: Ayttm should be almost instantly usable by your mother ;)
- It's Time to Tell Mum campaign
- Spotify in 2015 published and promoted an ad on twitter saying "Ahead of #MothersDay, how would you explain Spotify to your mom? There could be free Spotify Premium in it for her!" along with an image that stated, "It's music that's in the cloud… no, not that kind of cloud…"
- Zrusilla remembers: SuSE Linux back around 2000 ran a banner ad campaign claiming it was so simple to install even one's mother could do it. She wrote them a polite but stiff note explaining that her mother taught her to write DOS batch menus, install hard drives, siphon files with LapLink, recover corrupted data and hack licenses with hex editors. To SuSE's great credit, they apologized profusely and pulled the ad.
- Hacker Jargon File: Aunt Tillie: "The archetypal non-technical user, one's elderly and scatterbrained maiden aunt. Invoked in discussions of usability for people who are not hackers and geeks; one sees references to the “Aunt Tillie test”."
- The term was invented by Eric Raymond, who added it to the Jargon File despite being the only person who used it.
- The irony, as pointed out by John Gruber regarding the linux-kernel post in which Aunt Tillie was first invoked: “It wasn’t [Aunt Tillie] who couldn’t connect to a shared printer. It was Raymond himself who couldn’t figure it out.”
- Linux Installation Guide: So easy, even your grandmother could do it!
- Debconf 2 in Toronto: grandmothers used in example (and another example using female secretaries, in the same post)
- ITA Software's recruitment ad
- PC World Article: Seriously, Mom, It's Not Always a Virus
- An article in The Australian on Raspberry Pi by Chris Griffith stated: "Needless to say, the Pi isn't a system for one's grandmother, unless she is capable of entering console commands such as 'sudo dpkg-reconfigure tzdata'. I don't know a Granny who can."
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:
- The Great Ubuntu-Girlfriend Experiment (Content Consumer): "One way to measure [Ubuntu] usability is to sit your girlfriend in front of a Linux desktop and see what problems she encounters trying to do some normal desktop tasks."
- Ubuntu: I wonder if we’ve all done the Mother test by Martin Owens: "I remember testing Ubuntu on my dear ol’ mum... OK so I wonder if other Canonical staffers and Ubuntu members have tested Ubuntu on their mothers, I’m sure we’ve all done it right?" Various members of the Ubuntu community made critical and uncritical commentary:
- There is a group on Launchpad, the Canonical project management site, called My mom runs ubuntu!: "My mum runs Ubuntu, your's [sic] too? Did you also install Ubuntu on your mum's pc? Join the team for showing this growing user group!" (Launchpad groups are not necessarily endorsed by either Canonical or Ubuntu)
- In the article "Proposed Ubuntu 10.10 installer changes will make installation faster, friendly, intelligent", one of the proposed changes is to "Make partitioning mum-proof". Fortunately this phrasing is absent from the original design document.
- 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
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.