What’s a web browser?

Last week I was in Amsterdam for the Fronteers conference and, as many people know, I took my mom along with me. This was a bit strange because never in my ten years working in web development has my mom known exactly what I get paid for every day. All she knows is that I make web pages and whether or not she knows what that means is a matter of debate. We never really talk about technology but somehow, over dinner one night, I found myself in the strange position of trying to explain what a web browser is to her. I must have mentioned a web browser, because the following conversation ensued:

Mom: What’s a web browser?
Me: Well, that’s Internet Explorer.

(Side note: I switched her to Firefox a while back, but she identified the Internet Explorer logo with “the Internet”, so I had to point the IE icon to Firefox just so she’d know where to go.)

Mom: What’s that?
Me: The icon you click on says, “Internet Explorer,” and that’s how you get on the Internet.
Mom: I do that?
Me: Yes.
Mom: So when I go to Google, that’s a web browser?
Me: Yes.
Mom: So Google is a web browser?
Me: No. You use a web browser to go to Google.
Mom: Wait…I don’t get it.
Me: Google is a web page and you use a web browser to open it. But you can also open other web pages.
Mom: …
Me: Okay, think of it like this. A web browser is like a TV and Google is like a channel. So yes, you can go to Google, but you can also change the channel to something else.
Mom: Got it.

Now, my mom isn’t technically inclined, but she is very well educated. On top of that, she has me as a son and uses the Internet all the time. And she still didn’t know what a web browser was.

Here’s why I’m sharing this story: there are a lot of Internet users like my mom. As web developers and engineers, we live in a fantasy world where every user understands exactly what he or she is doing on the Internet and has a deep appreciation for web standards. The real world doesn’t reflect the fantasy at all. Users don’t understand the Internet; they don’t understand web browsers. If they don’t understand web browsers, that means they also don’t understand if they’re using a good browser or a bad browser, nor do they understand how to upgrade it.

For many, the Internet is just an icon on their desktop with a particular logo and color just like the toaster is a black or silver box that sits on the kitchen counter. What brand of toaster do you have? Who cares? You know how to make your morning bagel with it, right? For many of the billion Internet users, web browsers are simply a box that displays stuff. Whether or not that stuff has rounded corners and drop shadows is irrelevant. Whether or not you want them to change that box is irrelevant.

So the next time you get angry at “those damn IE6 users,” stop and realize that these are people who probably have no idea what a web browser is. They’re a lot like the poor senior citizens who were still paying to lease their phone from the phone company – what they had worked, so they didn’t see a reason to change. The sooner you accept that most of your users don’t even know what a web browser is, the better you’ll be able to design appropriate experiences and messaging for them.

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