The Three Types of Computer User

I think nearly all computer users can be divided into three broad categories based on the way they think about computers.

The vast majority of computer users are application-oriented. They have training and experience exclusively with commercial software. They understand concepts peculiar to computers such as files, folders, saving, and deleting. They live in a WYSIWYG world; although they may be aware that what they see on the screen is not an entirely accurate representation of what the computer is actually doing, they are not interested in understanding hidden implementations. They have learned how to map their thinking onto the capabilities of the applications they regularly use, and they accept whatever limitations that thinking may impose. They are pragmatic, learning as much as they need to get their work done. A new problem requires a new piece of software. Spreadsheet “programmers” fall into this category, as may some programmers who work primarily with application scripting tools such as Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications. Nearly all commercial software is targeted at this group of users, who can be considered “computer-literate.”

The second largest group consists of goal-oriented users. These users focus exclusively on the goals they want to accomplish and neither understand nor care about the software they use to accomplish those goals. This could be called the “I just want to type a letter” group. They only see the final product. They do not care about, for example, the difference between a word processor document and a PDF image of that same document, so they do not understand why they can make textual edits to one and not the other. They could be described as “computer-illiterate,” even if they work with computers on a regular basis. Many very intelligent people, scientists and scholars, fall into this category. They are frustrated by the limitations of the software they use because they do not understand the reasons for those limitations. Though they may use common terms such as “files,” they typically map those concepts onto their real-world metaphorical analogues, resulting in confusion. (“Why can’t I keep this picture in my email file?”)

The third and smallest group of computer users — ironically, the original computer users — is comprised of hackers. Hackers are computer-oriented computer users. They have learned how to think like a computer, to understand the processes the computer goes through. They favor small tools (e.g. the command line, shell scripts) over large applications because they want to be in precise control of what the computer is doing at all times. They comfortably work with data in “raw” formats such as text files. This does not necessarily mean they are tied down with minutiae of implementation; often they can work at much higher levels of abstraction than other users. Hackers tend to seek out the abstract patterns inherent in whatever end result they are working towards, then implement those patterns in the computer. A new problem rarely requires new tools, merely a new application of existing tools. They will create whatever new tools are needed to bring the computer up to the level of the problem, rather than trying to adapt the problem to fit the computer. On the other hand, their solutions tend to be brittle, with a lot of exposed complexity that makes them unsuitable for non-hacker users.

Nearly all commercial software is application-oriented, while most open-source software is hacker-oriented. Very little software, in my experience, is truly goal-oriented.