Intuition: it’s not what you think.

You might feel intuition is the best way to understand the problem of designing an interface.  You rely on your intuition, you trust it, maybe you even feel that it’s the source of deep insight and creativity.

But you’d be wrong. 

Intuition is really your first impression, that little bubble of apparent understanding that comes unbidden in response to a situation.  When we build our UIs, intuition is often what guides our initial work.  “Ah this one…it’s child’s play,” we think to ourselves.  And it’s too often where we stop.

Turns out you can’t quit with just the translation of intuition into an interface.  That’s the point of user testing – you’ve got to watch your pride and joy actually be used by real people in real situations.  It’s not enough to have a brilliant, intuitive idea that you think will work.  (After all, it’s intuitive, isn’t it?)  You really have to watch someone else trying to solve a problem with the child of your intuition.  You have to put the test users under a bit of stress, so that the natural beauty of your interface design isn’t the thing they’re noticing and appreciating – they’re focusing on the work itself, and not the tool. 

Great user interfaces might spring from an intuitive understanding, but they’re crafted by hard work; honed by carefully removing everything that doesn’t add to the tool’s value, deleting anything that gets in the way, or whatever it is that causes confusion. 

Making the user interface “intuitive” is often our highest goal when we do our professional work.

But what does that mean, exactly? 

Mostly it means that people can quickly understand the UI, or that they get the feeling the UI disappears in their work.  In psychological terms, the interface has great “positive transfer” from other skills or it has a great “flow” character.  That is, if you can drive a  Toyota, you can drive a BMW – that’s a great positive transfer experience.   If you can move smoothly from task to task without many bobbles, that’s a great flow experience.

And sometimes it’s the case that intuition informs both the design of positive transfer and flow; but just as often that’s not the case as well. 

At this point in my career I’ve seen thousands of user interface ideas: they pour unendingly from the minds of software developers.  I love ‘em all.  Look at them all trickle by in the thousands of wildly creative and inventive ideas. 

But as a consequence, I can no longer look at an interface with a fresh, unbiased, open mind.  I'm corrupted.  I’d like to think that I can still see an interface as though for the first time, but I can’t.

What’s more, you probably can’t either.  If you’ve been working in the software field for any length of time, you’ve grown accustomed to the look and feel of tools that wear their development history on their sleeves.  A command line might feel natural to you, but there’s no positive transfer for anyone who hasn’t already spent thousands of hours working with one.  The same thing is true of many of our prized productivity tools – even knowing where to look in a busy GUI is a skill that comes only with a lot of experience in the trenches.  There’s nothing natural about a GUI in the least. 

(Repeat this after me:  “There’s nothing natural about it in the least.”  Good.  Repeat every day until you reach satori.)   

As interface designers we often achieve our greatest successes when the interface disappears, and getting to that point is what makes us professionals at this game – our willingness to go beyond our personal intuitions and see what really works for our target audience.   Great user interfaces are ultimately about creating something that’s ego-less, something that works well for people who are not  you and not just the same as you.

Now that’s intuitive. 

Posted by Dan Russell on June 13, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

What a graphic can tell you

I love looking at things in a new way.  More to the point, I love it when I see things about the world that I thought I knew... but then realize there's more to the story. 

And for the past few years I've been doing various pieces of research into information visualization--the science and art of making complex information visually perceivable.  It's cool, it's fun, and every so often you learn something really, really interesting.

I was just sort of doodling the other day in Powerpoint.  (If you must know, I was trying to prepare a talk to give at some university, and I started wondering how many dots you could usefully squeeze onto a Powerpoint slide.) 

Now that sounds crazy: doodling in Powerpoint?  Yeah, I know.  But come to think of it, why not?  It's got a bunch of okay tools for drawing and while you probably won't make great art, it's fine for quick sketching.  You won't confuse the output with a masterwork in oil or water color, but it's really great for a quick sketch.   And it IS the tool I spend a lot of time using, so I've grown pretty accustomed to its idiosyncracies. 

So I drew a bunch of dots.  Then it hit me--if a dot stood for a day, what would my life look like as a set of dots on the screen? 

(You can click on each image to see it full-size.) 


If that's 20 years worth of days, then what would the rest of my life look like?  Could I fit a lifetime's worth of days onto a Powerpoint slide? 


And how would you think of your life in terms of segments?  I fooled around some more and came up with this as a way of thinking about the various parts of my career. 


I certainly hope that my life and career last more than 60 years!  Nevertheless, I found this an intriguing way of looking at the progress of your life.

Or, to put it more pragmatically, where's your dot?

Question for you:  What information graphic was most informative / influential / insightful for you?  Was there a great piece of infoviz that really just did it for you?

Posted by Dan Russell on May 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (38)