'Intuitive' software applications?

Subject: 'Intuitive' software applications?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 09 Jul 2004 09:13:26 -0400

Beth Bethell wonders: <<... whether 'intuitive' software applications actually exist, and discussing the implications for documentation of such systems.>>

There is no such thing as an intuitive application or device: there are only various degrees of "easier to understand" and "what the heck were they thinking/drinking when they designed this?"

<<I'd be grateful for your input on what you understand by 'intuitive' software applications, whether you think they exist, and whether users and tech writers/ developers have different understanding of the term 'intuitive'.>>

There are two main criteria for whether something is truly intuitive: First, whether you can use it without advance training or the need to consult documentation. Just about nothing more complicated than breathing is intuitive in this sense, and meditators, actors, and athletes will tell you that there's much to learn and nothing simple about even breathing.

Second, does the product behave the way you would expect it to behave? Unfortunately, every single human has a slightly or radically different set of learned expectations. Some people have learned the innards of their computers and software and gleefully approach any new computing task because they have enough context to bull their way through any problem; others have learned that computers are intimidating and unpredictable, and fear even the computing tasks they've already performed.

So is "intuitiveness" possible? Yes, but never as an absolute solution. You'll always have a range of user experiences, from success to failure, and the goal is to bias the distribution heavily towards the success end. You'll never entirely eliminate the failure end of the distribution, but with some thought you can minimize it. To make something fall into the "easier to understand" part of the spectrum:

Use the computer to do what it's good at: replacing or supplementing human memory, and performing rote or complicated tasks that we humans have difficulty performing. "Wizards" are examples of how the computer can supplement human memory by presenting all the necessary steps so the humans don't have to remember them and provide embedded assistance to help with each step; step by step instructions (e.g., well-designed forms) do the same.

Insist that the product follow learned expectations. The Windows convention for copy and paste is Control-C followed by Control-V; an intuitive application will build on this learned convention to help users copy and paste rather than using Control-M for "make a copy" and Control-P for paste. If the audience reads from left to right, the flow of information should proceed in that direction: context first, followed by decision in that context (e.g., Name: ______). Where standard conventions contradict this flow, follow the contradictory convention, such as placing a checkbox to the left of the text rather than to the right.

And so on. You'll never achieve the holy grail of perfect intuitiveness, but you can go a long way towards achieving it if you understand these two principles.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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'Intuitive' software applications: From: Beth Bethell

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