In praise of dummies

We live in a world so diverse and so complex that everyone has to deal with situations where we’re really don’t know what’s going on. We have to ‘drive blindly’ – we’re all dummies at some time or another.

The reality is, it’s rarely your fault.

The last person said to know everything about the world was John Stuart Mill. In the 137 years since his death, no-one else has achieved that feat.

John Stuart Mill

Instead, it’s the responsibility of the provider of a product or service to recognise that some of their users will be ‘dummies’. It’s their responsibility to find ways to make their customers capable and aware of what’s going on.

This is why good usable design, training, user documentation and other forms of user assistance are so important.


Larry Kunz

Right. Of course, we have to guard against the tendency to write as if all of our readers are dummies. That can prove frustrating to readers who are experienced and knowledgeable. The trick is in finding a good balance.

After all, Mill himself said “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” 😉


‘Intelligent Idiot’ is a useful phrase for me. My reader is a bright and interested companion, but lacks the domain knowledge we can help with …but in actual fact she’s busy, frustrated and just wants to get onto the next thing. So I’m terse.


Regarding instructional writing for one of my previous companies i wrote them for dummies, but also had next to it a Key steps section which outlined the main steps without going into detail. This was meant for the more experienced user, who knew the UI well but wanted to know the steps to do something. But again, it all depends on how well you know your user and their knowledge levels!

The balance is always hard and is different for each product.

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