Difficult user types (e.g. non-technical or technophobe)

When I say “difficult users” here, I do not mean trolls and other misbehaving folk but users (and people we would like to be users) who pose challenges to admins because they are digital immigrants, technophobe, or simply inert and therefore hesitate to try new technologies where existing technologies seem to work reasonably well or they have difficulties finding their way around your forum, create a new post, or what not.

I have seen these types of users mentioned here and there on meta mainly in two kinds of context:

  1. UX and feature discussions, where they are mentioned as a reminder that what seems easy or intuitive to most of us, may not work for others.
  2. Community management questions where admins wonder “Why are users not behaving like I expect them to?” or "How can I get these people to move to a Discourse forum?

The idea of this topic is to provide a space for exchange about the various difficult user types, the concrete challenges they pose and how to work with them. The topic may also help those of us who run forums with many or even a majority of these users, to identify each other. It’s good to know you’re not alone :slight_smile:

Finally, let me say that I do not mean to use “difficult user” in any prerogative way whatsoever. In contrast, I believe these people are an important resource for us as forum owners or community managers because they identify real problems that we could not even remotely imagine ourselves. That’s why I think the very first challenge with these users is to get them to articulate their problem (without shame).

So I’ll offer this as a first question: how do you get difficult users to communicate with you?


I run into these all the time. Symptoms most often experienced here are: “wrong” way of interaction within the reply-by-email system; inability to search before posting; incapacity to grasp the concept of posts, topics, replies etc.; no avatar or profile defined after months of membership; sensitive attitude to comprehensive replies by others because user isnt socialized in digital environment where immediate feedback is the norm, etc…


I think you need to be much more specific. What behavior are you seeing, with examples?

I figure most humans are expected to know how to use basic smartphone and Facebook at this point, otherwise how can they get along in the modern world?

I’m not sure what you’re asking for. Could you be more specific? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Could you elaborate what you mean here?

You need to spend some time moderating my forum…


Despite Facebook, a helpme@ email account, user guides, and PMs, some of our users ask usage questions somewhere in the middle of a topic about how to rebuild a carburettor. Although there can be tension in threads about politics, for the most part, a regular user will either field the question themselves, or notify/message me.

I think that this stems (at least partly) from how we solicited regular users to compose user guides when we first went live. When you run the forum, and you’re familiar with all the ins and outs you easily forget that not everything is obvious. (I’ve lost track of how many times I explained what the hamburger is).


Yea, sorry. So I do experience from time to time some folks who clearly seem to be having difficulty with the fact that on the net they’re not the smart guy at the kitchen table who says “and that’s that” and everyone believes them. There’s situations where these types of users ask questions, or come up with some story or a point or a news item, and then there’s comprehensive, detailed, or nit-picky replies by other users. And this type of user can’t handle it. You suddenly got a topic starter, no avatar picture, no in-depth knowledge, and without him to blame really, he gets piled on by other users with content. And that’s not a bad thing, but to the initiator, it feels rude, threatening, they feel cornered. They’re ripped out of their - I am exaggerating - small town world and are pulled into the enlightened global web a little too sudden. They can’t really process the volume, quality, interactivity and pace of online discourse. They react very sensitive to it… they might quit the forum. They might get rude. They’d feel being made fun of, etc… I hope I was able to describe the phenomenon a bit. I am still trying to come to terms with it myself, and I haven’t conducted any scientific studies on the matter :slight_smile:



Good description, good analysis. Thanks for explaining.

So in terms of “difficult users” the challenge is not technology use (I suppose your “small town user” may well be tech savvy to some degree?) and not tech-conservatism, but rather the broader horizon that the technology entails, right?

The first thing one may ask oneself as admin is probably: what am I losing if that user leaves my forum. The answer will vary from case to case but if you’re not losing anything, you don’t have a problem.

So what if you, for whatever reason, decide that you want to keep this user or those users more generally? I’d say it’s about influencing the style of discourse on your forum. As you mention, there are many ways in which you can react to “small town nonsense”. What seems to be key is whether or not the style of the responses makes an effort to save the face of small town Joe. Do you know what I mean? Finding the right tone for telling someone “you are plain wrong” while still conveying “but I have nothing against you personally” can be a challenge, but I think what counts is that on your forum generally make that effort. What I’d do as admin if I see a topic where this isn’t working (where someone seems to feel cornered) I’d probably post something about that the cornered user can interpret as support and which gives them a “way out” without losing face, and which signals to the cornering users “it’s enough now, if you continue, you are damaging the spirit of the forum.”

That said, I also think that there is nothing much you can do about the pain of learning (i.e. realizing how wrong you’ve been until now). What can be mitigated is the social dimension by showing people that it’s okay to be wrong.

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Perhaps what is needed for these users, who are uncomfortable with basic online communication, is a “new users” area which is intentionally more flexible and friendlier and more accommodating of simple questions and mistakes?

If your audience isn’t comfortable with basic smartphone and simple Facebook type usage, that’s a safe place you could create and manually guide people through it?

Also discobot can be of use here provided they can figure out how to click or tap reply.

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Yea giving them a comfort zone might work, but I think the tough cases don’t even realize that there are zones and bots and all this, to them it’s all just daunting, or… if misanalyzed… it’s really just someone with poor social skills combined with poor online skills giving the team a hard time :slight_smile:

I think it’s that, but in combination with a lack of knack for the “ways and means” of online interaction. You see this on Facebook, too: the folks who after all these years use Facebook functionality “wrong”, you know? Not on purpose but because the little they understand of it, they just use it for whatever intentions they have and then they don’t progress. Like that one uncle we have that keeps sending weird chain emails with ginormous attachments as if nobody had invented social sharing in the last 15 years… some people just don’t adapt well to how things are done or can be done, and if you combine that with social interaction over the net, which usually throws together a wide variety of characters of different age groups, education and origin, then you got a mix of parameters that some users just can’t handle too well, and then to us admins they come across as “difficult” - or they actually turn out to be.

This is an argument for avoiding any features that are too new too soon. . ‘too future’ if you like.
In other words Adopt The Standards (and add you one new feature)

Had another “case” :wink:
Again, possibly older (not sure, assuming 55+) user, got into an argument with a moderator right after signing up (moderator was right), but felt pushed around by a “youngster”. after some deliberation it was all sorted out, but user wants account deleted to “start fresh”. That’s my point: it’s culture, and a pre-digital era understanding of how things work. Starting “fresh” makes no sense if you just signed up and one wrong post was already deleted. How much fresher does it get…


Did the user apologize?

Yea, maybe “starting fresh” isn’t the right term. I suppose it’s more about starting over with a clean shirt, without the burden being known as someone who did wrong. i have no idea what such a “criminal record” implies on your forum but it seems that’s what bothers him.

So that’s why I’m asking if he apologized. If so, I’d probably grant the request (or anonymize).

I think it’s crucial to support people in learning and that includes allowing them to leave previous identities behind and be someone else. True learning transforms people so it is understandable if they want their new self to be reflected in their online identity.

Don’t wanna go into detail that much, but I think it supports my assessment that we’re dealing mainly with cultural problems, cultural in the sense of some users not being accustomed to online culture. they can’t deal with forum mods, they’re not aware of rules, they don’t immediately consider that their country’s law isn’t the only one applying, and add ontop of that a partial ignorance of digital logic of how things work on the net and you got a mix that can easily lead to disagreements, arguments and outright disgruntlement.

I don’t think we’re disagreeing, but just to elaborate on some points:

There are obviously many online cultures so coming from one forum and starting anew in a different one may also lead to problems. So a core competence needed today (not only online, obviously) is to be aware of cultural differences and work with them in a civil manner.

What do you mean here? They don’t understand the role of the mod?

Not meaning to defend anyone you may have in mind, but let’s be honest: who reads the forum rules on every new forum they enter? I’d say you generally assume that it says the usual stuff about netiquette and so on. So if my forum has a somewhat more specific rule, say “Don’t mention the war”, I’d give someone who breaks that rule for the first time the credit of the doubt. But if you mean that some people are not even aware that there are forum rules (at all) or refuse to accept them, I guess that is indeed a challenge.

But even here, I think it’s important to listen to what people have to say about your rules, cause no set of rules is perfect. So if someone explains to me, why it’s important to talk about the war on my forum, and there’s a way to accommodate that (maybe a war category? Maybe even limited to a specific group? Or maybe I was wrong in assuming that mentioning the war would lead to undesired outcomes and so I scrap the rule altogether?)

For anyone reading this topic, just a quick reminder that we are currently talking about some very specific types of difficult users. There surely are others and you are welcone to introduce them into the conversation.


So how does this type of difficult user find their way on to the forum in the first place? I mean, if they are as incapable of learning as you describe them, how come they actually do take part in discussions on the forum?

I think many of the “problem users” I have seen are those that have strong passions. I’ve seen discussions approaching personal attacks over such things as eg. “indents vs. spaces” and “curly brace on the same line as the function vs. curly brace on its own line”. Things go along fine until someone hits a raw nerve. And it’s essentially impossible to know what a members raw nerve might be until it’s been hit.

That and the familiarity of “social networks” coupled with not understanding forum etiquette. Some think that two word posts are OK (thanks Twitter) and others register to post a profile with no intention of ever returning as though it’s a “business page” (thanks Facebook). Yet others have the expectation that there is no reason to discuss anything and it is the other forum members “job” to give them quick, if not instant, answers. (thanks Stack Overflow)

In view of this. I think the best thing that can be done is to have as much “correct forum behavior” as possible in hopes newer members will follow suit.