Every time I visit my grandma, there’s a list of things that need demystifing. Timers on heating, new-fangled built in landline answer phones, clocks on microwaves. All things no doubt created without a scrap of user testing or else neither my grandma nor me would be spending half an hour trying to figure them out. (Call me impatient – but for basic home appliances, if it requires a manual, it just hasn’t been designed right.) Invariably, we end up on the internet, where I try to show her how to do the things she wants to do, and most importantly, be able to do them again by herself.

In front of a PC with my 85-year-old grandma is where I’ve had some of the most amazing ‘lightbulb’ moments about how people really use things – and how they are right, and those of us ‘know how things work’ are pretty often wrong.

My  grandmother is an intelligent and cultured woman. While she says she hates the computer, she uses it to research books, gardening or art history for one of her many art groups. So we started looking up artists. My first observation, one I’ve seen a million times, was that grandma doesn’t know the difference between a browser address bar and the search box, or between a key phrase and a domain name.

Quite frankly, why should she? That’s not her job. It’s the web browser’s job. If we expect people to know this, we’re wrong. I quickly install Chrome, banish IE as the default and tell her she doesn’t need to worry about that any more. Being able to put whatever you want into the address bar and let it all get figured out is the key feature that makes Chrome the most user-friendly browser around.

That hurdle crossed, up come the Google results for Gerhard Richter. “Which one should I click on?” Grandma asks. Top of the list is a Wikipedia entry, a text-heavy page from The Guardian and an iTunes movie trailer listing. None of these are what she is looking for. Considering I want to jump out a window every time a Marketing Professional asks me how they ‘get to the top of Google’, I have no idea how to tell my 85-year-old grandmother why none of these have pictures.

We press on. I realise that the best thing to do is find grandma some reputable, easy to use art sites that she can get to know and regularly use. I’ll add them to your bookmarks, I say. I don’t have any bookmarksGrandma says. “What are they?”  Again, it’s all too familiar. The last few times I heard this was from the mouths of  highly successful CEOs.

Why do we think people don’t need ‘bookmark this site’ links any more? We don’t even think that. We just don’t want them to clutter up our designs. We’re wrong. Want someone to visit your site again? Show them the way.

A bookmark a few sites and show her how to retrieve them. I show her how to use the Google image search. She moves back and forwards between sites using the back button as her primary way finding. (This is why you should never, ever break the back button.)

Some of these sites are better than others. It’s clear what she prefers. The ones with nice clear, alphabetical lists of artists down the left side and nice big pictures displayed straight away. Not the one with thumbnails too small to preview a painting, rollovers hiding the information and the annoying animated carousel of unrelated material. “How do I make that one look like this one” she says. She thinks the Google image search results are the best.

Then the real lightbulb moment. My grandma thinks the whole internet is one big website. Of course. It basically is. Why shouldn’t all the pages work the same? A linear sense of space, and ones’ place in that space, is the best thing we can consider for our users.

There are so many instances where the most widely used is not the best. Where a ubiqitous convention makes no sense when we think about it. (✉ ?) But convention means knowing how to use something, and knowing how to use something means a positive user experience. It’ll be a long time before my grandma becomes a competent internet user.

But I always tell her:

It’s not that you’re bad with the internet, Grandma. The internet is bad with you.