I've been wondering for a while if navigation on a site is naturally intuitive or learned. In usability tests we like to think that we are collecting user feedback to create intuitive systems. And we are in some ways - we are collecting feedback to make a system better. However, are we REALLY creating intuitive systems or are we creating systems that require previous knowledge (cultural or otherwise) to use?
At times we take our life for granted. We wake up in the morning, have a coffee and toast, read the paper, go to work, and so on. However, how did our life today really evolve to how we live now? What made this the pattern of life? We don't realize how defined our life and culture is. We deeply believe that we make decisions. But do we?
So let's think about a light switch for a second. We believe that it is intuitive to use. Now for our culture, it is. But is it truly intuitive? Meaning, if you have never seen a light switch before, would you know what to do with it? We see a light switch from birth onwards and learn how to use it by watching others flip it on and off. When we can reach one - we have an idea of what to do with it and repeat actions we have seen others do. So - is a light switch really an intuitive device? Would someone who has never seen it before understand it?
Another example is a steering wheel. If a child is in a car from early childhood, he or she learns how to steer a car by watching the parent. However, let's say someone NEVER experienced what it is like to be in a car and was presented with a steering wheel. Would that be intuitive to use? I'm not entirely sure.
Now if we think about an iPad or touch devices. We watch TV shows like Star Trek or movies like Minority Report where there are touch screens. Isn't that like watching a manual to learn how to use an object? Is that truly intuitive or are we, in some ways, being trained to think that this is how we use futuristic devices?
Voice control is probably the most intuitive way to use something - we just order it around. But again, is that trained behavior? You can order around a robot - but you can't order a rock to move and you can't verbally order an animal to surrender to be hunted.
This blog entry is the first of a series, and explores what I believe it means for something to be intuitive behavior versus what is learned behavior based on language and culture. I believe most of what we see today in usability is based on learned behaviors. If we were not socialized to be as we are today - I believe all of our devices would be useless. As an aside, this also raises the question regarding past cultures - do we judge how to use ancient tools based on our modern culture and understanding? If a device is intuitive based on cultural constructs - and ancient cultures were different from ours today - doesn't it logically follow that their devices would be as intuitive to us as an iPhone would be to someone from a remote village in the Amazonian jungle?
In each section, I consider what we consider to be innate behavior and intuitive - and question if it is truly intuitive. These are purely examples of how we are conditioned to understand the world and use objects. If anything, I'm hoping that you will join me in this thought experiment and maybe adjust how you see what is intuitive as well.
Chimps and Gorillas - what is innate behavior?
Many researchers spend hours watching chimps and gorillas use things and figure out how they work. They ponder how a chimp understands an exercise that a 2 year old can do. However, are we asking the chimp to do something learned or intuitive for a chimp, or is it from the chimp's perspective, just a ridiculous behavior being executed to get a banana? (If someone has the answer to this let me know. I'm not a researcher - just pondering this as a casual observer. I may be completely off-base here and would like to get more information on this first hand.) Based on my understanding of what is being observed, the chimps are "learning" what we value as intelligence as trade for a banana. So for that banana, they do things our way.
If you are living in a cage eating pellets, going along with this game isn't a bad idea. But is this type of activity really demonstrating intelligence overall? Shouldn't we be defining intelligence beyond how we define intelligence in our modern human society (through activities, interactions, etc.)? Are we observing behavior that is really innate? Or is this behavior really innate if you have lived in a modern human community (observed at such an early age, it is part of our "programming" for lack of a better word, and we don't even realize it)? And it becomes "innate" or learned by another species because the animal is being rewarded?
We teach gorillas sign language to communicate with us and express their thoughts. However, if you think about it - we are giving them words and concepts to use that are based in our modern human experience. How do we know if gorillas communicate different concepts with each other in a different way, because their way is truly beyond our own experience and society? How do we know if these human concepts are structuring their world and beliefs into something we can understand, and we are losing out on their experience because they have no tools to communicate their experience to us? They are expressing their thoughts according how we define the world thru language. But is this the true gorilla experience? Do they have a different world view that we will never fully be aware of because they don't have a spoken language that we can discern? Do they have ways to express concepts that are outside human experience? Are we being arrogant to assume that their experience is less than one of that of a modern human?
This gets me to wonder - why don't we work to try to understand them in their "culture"? Why do we need to use our culture as the center to judge all other "cultures"? Is what we consider to be usable and tests of intelligence really applicable to humans only? Don't we miss something with this? Aren't we conditioning these animals to do what we want?
Language and how we see society
France has a council to regulate the French language called Académie française. Actually, most countries today have a committee to regulate and define the language. These organizations don't just keep the language "pure." Language and culture are closely tied in general. How members of a society express their thoughts and values is dependent on a language to unify their experiences. If you think about it, by defining the language, these organizations are also shaping the culture of those various countries. Language influences how and what we think.
Language also influences how we view concepts. We have a single word for love; other cultures have dozens. C.S. Lewis wrote The Four Loves, which outlines the 4 types of love in Greek.
In the US, we obsess about Eros. This may partially explain why Americans are obsessed with romantic relationships and sex and overlook other types of relationships. Love is Valentine's Day, candlelit dinners, 'til death do us part. We rarely think that love is about friendship, affection or unconditional family love. Women typically dump their friends in favor of a boyfriend (which works until a man dumps them). Men have friends, but search for that one woman that rules their world - and does the same thing to their friends. In modern American society, we believe that it is ok to cancel an outing with friends in favor of a date. Generally, we forget that love can be a warm family dinner, spending time with a grandparent, cuddling a child. This oversight may be attributed to how we define the word "love." We have a single word, and we have attributed at least 4 types of love to it - talk about oversimplifying a concept and at the same time making it more complicated! This is just one example of how words truly shape how we view the world because it reflects (and also drives) our culture, ethics, values.
The US doesn't have a group to regulate and define English. That also speaks to our culture not being defined. And it is a mixture and free for all. I'm not implying this is a bad thing - if anything, it allows for creativity and an openness to live as you want, which is a cornerstone of the US based on the Constitution. By allowing creativity in language, we are enabling a more creative society that is fluid and changeable. However, this idea of freedom also influences how we view the world - how we use objects around us and how we expect them to work. We believe in personal freedom and expect the ability to have experiences defined so that we can customize them. That is fairly consistent to our experience daily - we want it our way and we feel we can define our future because we define our own language.
Language influences how we view the world, and in some ways, it influences what we view as intuitive. How a society perceives the value of language also influences what we consider to be intuitive and what we value.
Culture and Religion
Beyond language, we are programmed through culture, religion, the media. We are defined by social conventions. And we take this for granted - we don't even realize how deep this all goes. From my own experience, I grew up deeply Catholic - church every week, Catholic high school, constantly going on retreats. A crucifix to a Catholic is obviously a symbol representing Jesus's death and considered holy, revered, and respected. However, to someone who is not familiar with Christianity, the image of a crucifix is truly horrifying. Similarly, so is the crown of thorns. When I was 7 and not really exposed to Catholicism yet, I saw a very graphic picture of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns in a religious shop. Upon seeing it, I was immediately terrified, screamed and had nightmares about it for weeks. I wasn't yet programmed to accept the crown of thorns image as holy - it was outside of my experience. And I didn't yet learn that I shouldn't respond that way.
Today in US culture, we are ashamed of going the bathroom (we have stalls separating us in a restroom). Going to the bathroom is a private moment. It is apparent from archaeological sites that in ancient cultures, people weren't ashamed of it - they would socialize when they were there! In ancient Roman baths, there was a communal bathroom, with dozens of place to go the bathroom around the edge of the wall. Apparently, the Romans in the baths may have been immersed in a great conversation that would continue to the bathroom. Going the bathroom was like eating a meal or changing. So what happened where we see going to the bathroom as a private act? In some ways, we could say that our hatred of our bodies influence this view. What happened to make us ashamed? Unbridled Christianity during the Middle Ages is a factor. But are there others? What would make us define the bathrooms in the Roman baths unusable, and they would probably see our bathrooms as unusual (why potty alone?).
Another example is doorknobs vs latches. When I was a little girl my uncle used to tell me that the difference between Europe and the US was latches and shallow toilet bowls (which alone lended itself to a lot of literal potty humor). I got further confirmation recently about the latches/doorknob AND toilet bowl issues from a friend from Germany. She told me a story about how when she was in the US as an exchange student, she didn't understand how to lock a doorknob. With latches you can see if a door is locked or not; with a doorknob - well - she didn't get it. It wasn't usable. Someone had to show her. The deep toilet bowl story isn't too appropriate to repeat here, but to sum it up - the deep toilet bowls in the US are great. Honestly, there is no better or worse approach to either issue (well, honestly our deep toilet bowls are better for many reasons I won't get into here). In the end, it's the same functionality but a different approach for having someone open a door (no puns intended for both). And you get used to using what's available to you - it is more intuitive to live that way; living another way is a foreign concept.
Devices and manuals
When we buy an electronic device, we typically get a manual that we need to read to understand all the available features. We study the manual or reference it when we have a question - and most times we consider a device to be intuitive if we rarely reference a manual to achieve our goals.
Intuition is defined by Merriam Webster as "quick and ready insight 2a: immediate apprehension or cognition"
To sum it up, if you must touch a manual to use an object, it's not intuitive.
We consider the iPhone to be intuitive; same as the iPod. The first time I held an iPod, I couldn't figure it out. I'm not a stupid person (at least, I like to think so). I didn't understand the buttons, touch dial, or display. I needed to be shown how to use the device by an Apple employee. The employee praised Apple for creating an intuitive device. I just had a blank stare - because in a way, I was being told that I was so stupid, I couldn't figure out something intuitive and so well designed.
This was also true for the iPhone. I needed a training session to use the touch screen, swiping, the whole thing. I have personally witnessed people watching me use my iPhone, seeing me use a feature that I was shown, and ask me to do that again so they could learn what that feature was. I frequently call people to learn how to do things on my phone. If you can't figure something out on your own, having an "ah-ha!" moment, by definition - that means it is not intuitive. Apple may be defining new conventions - which is great - but honestly, by definition, it's not creating intuitive devices.
Needing training and demonstration to use a device means that it's not intuitive.
We are being socially conditioned to use products. Apple designs beautiful products - no doubt. However, because the products are cool, we get attracted to the shiny object, and we are being socially conditioned to use these products. If you know how to use them, you are then in the "in crowd." If you do not use the products you are considered to be a laggard. And we think that because we use these products we are so far ahead of the curve, when in some respects we are being trained how to use technology and just look at the laggard as the poor thing who can't keep up (when in fact, the laggard may be thinking these technologies aren't intuitive to use - and they aren't!).
Now we look at navigation on a Web site. For the past 15-20 years, we have been trained to use Windows. Microsoft Windows is everywhere - work, home, school. I remember being at MIT using Project Athena. I had to use UNIX and always got out of that environment to XWindows for a better interface. Essentially I wanted to use Microsoft Windows because I perceived it as being easier to use. I think it was only because I didn't need to understand command language. Programming scared the life out of me - not only because I was a lousy programmer, but because I was afraid of my classmates who already knew how to program like an ace and saw me as an idiot for being at MIT without this previous knowledge (this brings up a debate about why go to school and take a class if you already have the knowledge - but I digress). With XWindows and Emacs, I could just type and see results. Was this necessarily me thinking this was easier? No. I was avoiding machine language because it was more difficult and took what was presented as an "easier" option. Honestly, it wasn't that intuitive to use. I needed more technical friends around to help me all the time. I found it intuitive because I was less afraid and intimidated of using XWindows than Unix command line language.
Using Microsoft Windows is difficult. Try watching an older person use Windows. It's sad and entertaining at the same time. They try so hard to make the computer work - but they can't because you need previous knowledge to use the computer! We don't realize how we have been trained to use menus - bars at the top of the screen, bars at the bottom of the screen. This isn't intuitive; if it were, people wouldn't take computer classes. We make people think they are stupid not to understand how to do things on the computer - of course they can't - it's simply not intuitive. It's learned behavior.
Let's talk about Windows 8. Windows 8 is a departure from the standard Windows menu-based navigation. It's scary to use because it's a brand new paradigm.
Here is a review: http://blog.laptopmag.com/usability-expert-windows-8-on-pcs-is-confusing-a-cognitive-burden
I personally haven't used Microsoft 8. However, based on everything I have heard and seen, I'd like to use it to see how Microsoft has changed its paradigms. Is this change really better or worse - no. It's just different. We may consider it not usable because it's a different paradigm. But is it a worse paradigm? Not sure. I think the jury is out on that because we have been so programmed to use the older approach of Windows - and a new approach may be more usable, but not immediately seen as intuitive because of all of the training we have received.
Human minds really don't multi-task. Humans focus on one thing at a time. Original computer interfaces (specifically, the Cannon CAT) allowed a user to work on one document at a time. Windows even followed that model in the early days of computing. Over time, culturally, we were told that we needed to multi-task to do our jobs. I'm not sure how someone can successfully focus to create presentation and a document and spreadsheet at the same time, but we were encouraged to do this - and the MIcrosoft interface supported this concept. It also encouraged us to have multiple windows open simultaneously. Were any of us actively working on these documents? NO! Most likely documents are open for reference - or for later work. All this does is make a messy desktop and sloppy use of system resources. Is it usable? Again - it doesn't really map to how our brain works; it maps to how our culture WANTS us to work.
So is Windows as it stands intuitive? I'm guessing no. It's learned.
Propaganda by Edwad Bernays
Propaganda is a book that is required reading for anyone who works in advertising, marketing, or any other product creation company or role. Essentially, the book is about how choice is made for us by an "inside government." In some ways, this is true.
The movie "The Devil Wears Prada" alludes to this:
Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
And this is so true. As much as we believe we have choice in society, do we? Are the decisions that we make that define us really decisions that are defined FOR us to make? We believe we are choosing a blue sweater, when in fact, someone else is offering a blue sweater to sell to us and we make a decision only between red and blue - not the sweater style or color offerings.
So does this mean that our culture is defined by someone else?
I had a hard time selecting quotes from Propaganda to prove this, and frankly, I just recommend you read the book. But here are some quotes to give you an idea of his point:
"We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of."
"Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
"It is not usually realized how necessary thse invisible governors are to the orderly functioning of our group life."
"We have volunteraily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issue so that our field of choise shall be narrowed to practical proportions."
"In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if everyone one went around pricing, and chemically tasting before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would be hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects broiugt to it attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently vast and continuious effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea."
"It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would whoose our rules, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to east. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this socity has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda."
"Some of the phenonen of this process are criticized - the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are briught to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misued. But such organizations and focusing are necessary to orderly life."
It is all around us that we are given choices to choose from and if we didn't have this - we would be overwhelmed and unable to make a decision. This approach does assume the public is stupid, I won't deny that, but it confirms what I am saying here - our lives have been more or less decided for us by others (magazines, etc.). A cultural code has been established for us and we have the illusion of choice - as earlier confirmed by Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
This cultural code is in the press, politics - everywhere. A few decide how we should perceive the world. We are presented with options where we choose which is best for us given our current society.
And this defined society provides the basis for us to consider items to be intuitive.
When people participate in research, they don't create new products themselves. The researchers are looking for problems that they observe (or they perceive and define as problems) and think - why is this person doing this workaround? Is there something this person could be doing to make this easier? People are doing work in the way they know how. And designers and engineers create a solution based on their experience and what they believe will work. They leverage design conventions used in other products in a different way - rarely is something truly new created. We think it is new through marketing and messaging. A phone is a phone, or phone with TV, or phone with Internet. It is cool - but is it a true breakthrough as a concept? Combined devices started long ago - what were the furniture hi-fis of the 50s with a built in turntable and radio? We may change the combinations, we may add new technology, but the general concept is the same - multi-use devices.
We look to make a product intuitive or usable in the context of modern human society. We don't always consider cultural factors unique to an area - designers tend to work with more generalities. A good example of this is the iPhone (apologies that I keep picking on that device). It was designed in Cupertino, where the weather is fairly pleasing all year round - it is rarely below 40F.
Shortly after buying a phone, I went to Boston at Christmas to visit my parents. I remember it being cold and snowing - typical weather for the Boston area. I was all bundled up in gloves and coat, and needed to call my parents while I was walking to the MBTA station to go home. I desperately tried to unlock my phone so I could call them while wearing gloves but I failed. All I thought was - are you kidding me? I can't use the phone in the cold? I have to have numb fingers to use it?
After I figured out that I could get the phone to work without gloves (and I had numb fingers), I immediately called my friend who works at Apple to understand if my experience was in fact designed. He said yes - the touch screen requires human finger heat for it to work. I asked him if the designers ever considered someone using the phone outside in a cold climate? Having some type of attachment? I mean, 50% of the world is in a cold climate. And with my Palm I could type wearing gloves (clumsily, but nevertheless, I could type).
Real usabiity and intuitive use
This is a very long blog entry that may grow to something else in the future and I plan to publish parts over time (obviously, I have a lot to say about this). However, I'd just like to sum up everything I was saying and leave you this thought. If we went to a village where there has been zero exposure to technology or devices and usability tested our modern sites and devices, would they be considered to be intuitive or would they require training? Would they understand our technology? Would they need to have some of our modern human culture behind them to "get it"? Is a technical item being technical itself a reason to make is unusable? In my profession, we make devices work for anyone - so that is not a reason. Anyway, it was something to think about.