The dangerous myth of the "completely intuitive product"

Subject: The dangerous myth of the "completely intuitive product"
From: "Larry Kunz ((919) 254-6395)" <ldkunz -at- VNET -dot- IBM -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 4 Jan 1994 18:14:18 EST

jong -at- TNPUBS -dot- ENET -dot- DEC -dot- COM (sorry I don't know your name) writes:

> I claim there are no non-trivial software products that truly
> require no user information (no printed documentation, no on-line
> documentation, and no help files). Further, I claim that the
> oft-repeated myth that such products do, or can, exist is damaging
> to our profession.

When the issue is stated in such absolute terms, I have to agree with
you. But consider this. . . .

When I rent a car, or test-drive one at the dealer, I'm glad I don't
have to read the owner's manual first. I appreciate knowing that the
pedals will do what I expect them to. And I appreciate being able to
work the gearshift with, at most, documentation that's minimal and
(literally) at my fingertips: the P-R-N-D-2-1 on an automatic
transmission, or the 'H' diagram on a stick shift.

When I lift the hood, I expect to be able to do simple maintenance --
change the oil, add coolant, replace the air filter -- without consulting
a manual. For more complex things, I don't mind using a manual. But for
day-in, day-out tasks, I should never need documentation. Not the first
time, not ever.

(I once rented a car on which neither I nor a mechanic could locate the
oil dipstick. I was NOT cheered by the prospect of looking in the
owner's manual, even when I considered that the car's hokey design
might mean gainful employment for some fellow technical communicator.)

Using a computer system ought to be like driving a car. For day-to-day
tasks, the documentation is minimal and requires no extra effort by the
user. Documentation *is* required, but only for nonroutine tasks.

But wait, there's more. As COMMUNICATORS, we know how people process
information. So we're the professionals who can lead the way toward
intuitive user interfaces. Someone who writes a good manual is a good
technical communicator, no doubt, but so is someone who designs a good
user interface. And I daresay I'd trade a dozen of the former for one
of the latter.

Larry Kunz
ldkunz -at- vnet -dot- ibm -dot- com

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