Treat your website visitors like idiots: They will thank you

Written by Tom Greenwood - August 13, 2012

Article read time: 3 minutes

There’s one piece of advice that I’ve been giving our customers for a long time now but have resisted posting on the blog for fear that it might come out the wrong way.  But what the hell, it needs to be said!

When you’re designing a website (or anything for that matter), you should start with the assumption that the people using it are idiots.

As Douglas Adams wrote in the book Mostly Harmless, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

This might sound a bit harsh, but if you design with this in mind, people will thank you for it.

Photo by JD Hancock

The internet dumbs us down

There is something about the internet that turns us into idiots.  When we browse the web, we have a short attention span, we have very limited thinking capacity and we’re lazy.  We want to be spoon fed information with no effort whatsoever.  After all, isn’t that why we love the internet?  Because it allows us to feel like a genius without actually having to be one.  Everything we need to know is at our fingertips, and we expect it to be quick and easy.  If we wanted finding information to be a challenge, we’d look things up in the Yellow Pages, or maybe even try to get to the library on public transport and then wade through a load of books that are 15 years out of date.

So the best way to make our experience of the web quick and easy is to assume that we’re not very bright.

When I get on the web and slip into idiot mode, these are the top 3 things that I like to see in a website design:

1. Not a lot!

Information means thought! The more stuff I have to look at and the more text I have to read, the more time and mental capacity I have to spend.  I only have limited time and thinking space, so I don’t want you to bombard me with stuff that I don’t need to see.  In fact, time and thinking space are two of my most valuable assets, so if you take them away from me I won’t be a happy bunny.  And if I’m not a happy bunny then I’m not likely to give you my money.

2. The Answers

In an exam, we wish we just had the answers handed to us, but of course we’re can’t (because it’s an exam!).  But the internet isn’t an exam, so don’t force me to tax my brain trying to figure out who you are, what you sell and why I should give a monkeys.  Just hand me the answer sheet as soon as I reach the website.  Tell me exactly what I want to know, clearly and concisely, and then you move me from thinking “Can I be bothered to stay on this website?” to “Does this proposition interest me?”

3. Instructions

So I stayed on the website for just long enough to get interested, but what next?  Should I buy something, phone you, fill in a form, subscribe?  If you don’t tell me what to do pretty darn soon I’m going to go and look at someone else’s website.  If you want me to do something before I leave your website, then don’t assume that I am clever enough to figure out what that thing should be.  Just tell me!  Make it obvious, be assertive, and I might just do what I am told.


Treating people like idiots isn’t about patronising them, it is about making things simple.  So simple that they can’t go wrong.  So simple that they enjoy being on your website.  So simple that it makes them feel clever!

Far too often people build complex websites because they assume that their client’s are “of a high intellectual callibre”, or worse still make it feel like it is an intelligence test that weeds out customers who aren’t smart enough to figure out what is on offer.  And it is those websites that are doing a disservice to their visitors, and not the other way around.  Even if your customers are Nobel Prize winning scientists, that doesn’t mean that they want to be frustrated and have their time wasted – in fact it is even more likely that they don’t have mental capacity or time to waste navigating the labrynth of information on your site (they’re way to busy trying to save the world).

So there you have it.  Treat your website visitors like they are idiots, and they will thank you for it.