Thought: The intuitive interface is a myth

The intuitive interface is a myth, intuition is the result of subconscious processing which can only happen when a system is learnt (through experience and practice).

An novel interface cannot be intuitive as the ‘user’ hasn’t learnt how to use it. This learning time can be reduced, to nearly nothing, by employing a good conceptual model and consistency with existing design approaches.

Thought: The enterprise is ill equipped to support working in modern world

Our lives have become more complex, this problem is both simultaneously accepted and ignore by the modern enterprise.

On one hand the enterprise has acknowledge the complexity of the modern world by enabling greater flexibility for the worker. Their human centred processes allows home working, flex-time, flexi-start, self selected holiday days, job sharing etc. They acknowledge their part in helping their workers to achieve a more harmonious work-life balance.

At the same time the enterprise ignores the impact technology has on the workers ability to perform. Our own adaptability and the relentless advancement of technology is, like most things, a blessing a curse. Consider the following:

Our work lives have become more complex because the technology we have access to allows us to perform beyond our natural abilities.

The enterprise has undoubtedly benefited from this coupling between human and technology, people are able to perform complex tasks with relative ease, tasks are automated and more revenue is generated with less effort (compared to a manual book keeping process for example).

However, people are people, we are not machines that exist solely for the utility of the companies we work for. We think about our work at home, and home at work. What we learn in one context can be used elsewhere. In short, we are beings of the world and our experience and our skills that make us valuable. To cope with the demands on our time and attention we use the same types of technology as the enterprise to support a diverse set of strategies and tools for learning, remembering, interpreting and managing the information available in the world.

One such strategy is to off-load some of our biological process to computer based systems. We off-load remembering to computers to alleviate the limitation of our own memories. Computers with their almost infinite capacity to store information frees us those restrictions.

In addition, we enhance our ability to access information by using technological aids (such as searching algorithms) which allows us to access and make sense of the vast amount of data available quickly and easily.

The natural by product of this technological coupling is that we personally distribute our remembering across multiple systems: books, the internet, notepads, our brains and in a work context the internal system; the list goes on.

This off-loading of memory carries two main problems for the enterprise 1) Information stored in computer systems are accessible to anyone who can use the retrieval mechanisms, thus creating intellectual property and privacy issues. 2) The controls implemented to protect the intellectual property and privacy hinder the information retrieval process.

The enterprise, rightly, take steps to protect access to their internal system but as part of the same measures they routinely restrict access to external, internet based, resources to prevent the leaking of information to the outside world.

This is counter productive for two reasons:

Firstly, If resources on the internet is an integrated part of someone’s remembering system our ability to retrieve that information is compromised. We are effectively being lobotomised, negatively effecting our ability to perform. Why not tie one of our hands behind our back when we arrive to work just to compound the problem. Of course, It’s possible to argue that unfettered internet access can lead to other performance issue and interruptions but, I would imagine that more time is lost due to the impact of the loss of cognative ability.

Secondly, People are brining their own laptops, tablets and smartphones to work. This demonstrates both a lack of appropriate tools (another issue) and the need to have access to information resources that exist externally to the ones provided by the enterprise. This flies in the face of the reasons behind the imposed restrictions to services. Using an internal email client (which is usually unrestricted) I can send myself any information I want. I can also use the data connection on my phone to have full access the internet.

Information is almost guaranteed to leak because in order for me to function properly I have to access the systems i rely on for remembering and retrieval.

People are part of a system, a system that enables the enterprise to flourish. The adaptable nature of our minds, and the technology at our disposal enable us to perform complex and advanced functions beyond our natural abilities. We readily accept the positive benefits of this union but this infers an acceptance of the negative, making it incumbent on us to understand the impact and limitations of the tools, infrastructure and systems we make available.

Thoughts: The location of knowledge

Knowledge in the head is subject to the limits posed by memory and attention (both limited).

Knowledge in the world plays an important role in reminding people of things: current state, tasks left to be done etc.

Good design provides knowledge in the world.

(Tbh. I’m not sure if i wrote this or if it’s a quote – possibly by Don Norman)

Thoughts: the design paradox

What makes good design?

‘Good design’ is disseminated through popular culture because it looks great, informing the wider population about how things should work.

Good usability practice is informed by convention and by using consistent input/manipulation and control mechanisms which leads to the entrenchment of ‘good design’.

Forget Affordances? Not so fast….

In Don Norman’s influential book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ he introduced the term ‘Perceived Affordance’ (referred to as affordance) to the design community. At the time it was necessary to give a name to a fundamental aspect of their work, namely how do you communicate to a person the intended use of an object?

What is a perceived affordance?

An affordance, in design speak, is a property of an object that implies how it can be used. For example, the design of a chair affords: sitting on, being used for support when standing and standing on. These are some (not all) of the things you can do (actions) with a chair because of the way it was designed.

However, affordances still exist even if it’s not intended by the designer at all. Take an instance of a chair with wheels, the chair still affords standing on, it has height, is sturdy and has a large, flat seating area. The inclusion of the wheels make standing unsafe, the affordance is still present but that particular use is not intended.

From the moment Don introduced the term it took on a life of its own, as Don himself describes:

“When I introduced the term into design in 1988 I was referring to perceivable affordances. Since then, the term has been widely used and misused. The result has been confusion…”

The misuse lays in the problem that affordances are all the possible actions a person can take with an object, not just the designed/intended action. For example a tablet computer screen affords tapping. The inclusion of an icon (as a clue to where you tap to launch an application) does not create the affordance; it’s the properties of a tablet screen that does.

Now, 25 years later, Don has called to retire the term affordance, instead we should use signifier. Signifier more accurately describes how a designer lets a person know what to do (rather than what’s possible) by providing a clue to the desired action.

Continuing the example above the application icon is a signifier, as it indicates where on the screen you should tap to launch the app. You can’t launch that app by tapping on any other area of the screen.

You may be thinking that affordance is now a redundant principle of interaction design. I disagree, affordances are still important because of the metaphors we use.

When we choose a metaphor to represent our systems conceptual model we inherit the schema of that object. We automatically create in the user’s mind a set of possible actions.

What’s a Schema?

Schemas allow us to acquire new information quickly and efficiently by liking it to some other information already stored in memory. For example, I can describe a Zebra to someone who has never seen one as a Horse with black and white stripes. The Horse schema, if known, will allow that person to use any information they have about Horses and apply that to the Zebra. You would then know that a Zebra is black and white has: hooves, mane, tail, eats grass, and is about 5ft tall.

The downside to schemas is that they can allow for the memorisation of incorrect or incomplete information, if a person’s only experience of a horse is of the miniature variety, they will incorrectly remember that all Zebras are only 3ft tall

When computer engineers used the concept of a filing system as the way to represent stored files on a computer hard disc, they had to ensure (amongst other things) that files and folders could be easily added, renamed, moved and deleted, this is because these are some of actions available when using actual folders and files I.e. Someone who uses paper files, and folders can: label and relabel them, add additional files to existing folders and rearrange them. They can add addition files to cabinet drawers and they can throw away old files and folders. A person who uses a filing system will have expectations based upon the use and available actions of the real world counterpart.

If we don’t take time to understand the available actions of real world objects, it’s possible that we could miss a vital action which would ultimately cause frustration for the person using the system.

It seems unlikely to me that the originators of the modern file system considered the affordances of physical file and folders when designing the system. It is most likely that they were more concerned with the available restricted space on the hard disc. Had they taken time to understand the possible actions inherent in the metaphor they chose, then we might not have had an operating system that only allows filenames with 8 characters, as we did with DOS based systems.

It is still essential then for designers to understand affordances, so that they hone their ability to look at the world in terms of the available actions. Then, when choosing metaphors to represent our systems we can ensure that we have full understanding of what actions should be made available or not.

Random thoughts about UX and Business

I think i might have been in a bad mood when i wrote this.

  • Digital’ is not an abstract goal. It’s a essential business function. Your customer want to use your products or services at a time, location and through a channel that suites them. Which are the appropriate platforms to achieve this? 
  • Usability is not optional. It’s an essential part of a professional development process. As tools, interaction design practice and technology use matures the innate level of usability will increase. Only focusing on tactical usability issues to meet customer needs will eventually hit the law of diminishing returns, It will cost more to identify usability issues versus the expected return. 
  • People adapt. If a person believes a product will help them achieve their goal they will endure hell on earth to get it. (Remember the queues outside your local apple store on launch day, or when the last Harry Potter book was release, or trying to program your video player to record a show while you’re out?) So why don’t your customer want your product? 
  • Customer expectations change faster than your ability to keep up. Designing to meet needs enables your product or service to stay relevant for longer. 
  • Your current products might not meet the customer’s need – people may use your product, but you won’t build lasting relationships if it doesn’t help a customer to achieve their goal. As soon as something comes along that does meet their goal then your customer will be off.