Last night I attended Refresh Boston’s presentation on intuitive design, featuring keynote speaker Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering (UIE). Jared asked the central question “What Makes a Design Intuitive?” and proceeded to illuminate his audience with humor and clear examples of things that are (and are not) intuitive.
His first point, while acknowledging that it is somewhat semantic, is that designs can’t be intuitive. People either intuit what the design wants us to do, or (in the cases of poor design) feel like we are being trained. Since we use the shorthand jargon ‘intuitive design’ anyway, we should understand what that means.
Does this have to do with novelty? Are new experiences by definition non-intuitive?
How about complexity? Does intuitive mean ‘simple’?
As it turns out, ‘intuitive’ is a personal experience. As users, we come pre-loaded with existing knowledge. This collective audience experience can be mapped out as something Jared calls ‘Current Knowledge.’
On the other side of our current knowledge is Target Knowledge; the cumulative education required to use a product to its full capability. The difference between our current knowledge and target knowledge results in a ‘knowledge gap.’ It is the designer’s job to build an interface that minimizes the knowledge gap. That can be tricky because users typically have a broad range of current knowledge. Think about the difference, for example, between your mother’s ability to program the clock on her dvd player (do those still exist?) and your kids’ innate aptitude with anything electronic. See what I mean?
The bottom line (from a design perspective) is that design is ‘intuitive’ when current knowledge = target knowledge. This really isn’t that hard to understand, so I asked Jared why there aren’t more intuitive designs out there. Is it because companies don’t care? Could it be that our existing tools for training, and measuring user comfort are inadequate? Is there something else?
The techniques currently used to bring products to market include field studies (to identify current knowledge) and usability testing (which defines target knowledge and the knowledge gap), as well as persona and pattern analysis. These have been around for quite a while and are well understood. But there is a huge difference between the conceptual and practical, so building intuitive solutions is not as straightforward as we might hope.
Consider this: it wouldn’t be too difficult to learn kung-fu techniques from a book. But applying that knowledge is a completely different reality that takes years to master (unless you live in The Matrix).
“I know kung fu”
See what I mean? Most of us won’t settle for products that take years to master (insert your own Microsoft or SAP pun here).
Ultimately this comes down to cost; creating an awesome user experience requires a lot of development effort. Most companies are unwilling or unable to invest so heavily in front end design, even though the back end rewards (through higher customer satisfaction and sales) should compensate for the initial investment.
Personally I think this is a symptom of the free market. When measured from the company’s view in terms of market share, knock-off products and clones come out so quickly now that taking the time to design products ‘the right way’ is a luxury that most companies can’t afford. It might make sense to take a long time building the ultimate product when it is going to be a first-to-market game changer (ie: iPhone), but after that everybody has to scramble to catch up.
Hence we have Sturgeon’s law: “99% of everything is crap.” I’m not sure if I would go that far, but I was intrigued by a conversation about crowdsourcing and in-house development that took place during the Q&A part of Jared’s talk.
Jared sees a limitation in crowd sourcing. Since most open-source projects are done by hobbyists, there is an inherent lack of user-centric research that often results in applications which are great for the inventors but useless for anyone else. In fact, after the conference I spoke with a friend who is organizing a Drupal usability conference to deal with the fact that Drupal 6.0 was labeled as being incredibly hard to use. That’s a great testimony to Jared’s point!
This doesn’t mean that crowd sourcing can’t work (think of Wikipedia or Open Office as successful examples, and see my earlier essay on the Contribution Revolution) but there are inherent limitations to that model of construction. On the opposite side of the spectrum are projects that fall into the category of ‘design-for-self.’ This is when a bunch of propeller-heads get together and say “hey, how come our mobile phones suck? Let’s build one that doesn’t suck.” They are building for themselves, not looking at the general marketability of their ideas. Sometimes it happens to work out for everyone’s benefit.
My final thought on this topic isn’t about the idea of usability, per se, so much as it is a commentary on the facility which hosted us. Microsoft donated the use of their beautiful NERD lab which is located adjacent to the MIT campus. Smart positioning on their part, I thought. Still, it was somewhat embarrassing that the room was full of Macbook and iPhone users. I don’t know what the actual ratio of “Mac people” to “PC people” was, but I literally didn’t see a single PC there.
I hope that somewhere in the shadows the MS design team was lurking and listening.
Here’s to better products!