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Friday, 16 March 2007


Roger Attrill

Hi Sunny - [I'm enjoying your blog very much.]

You've touched on a subject close to my heart - creating a user interface that works intuitively. This is one of the (excuse the unintended pun [safer cars]) 'driving' issues for any software developer who cares about the applications they're writing.

Intuition comes from built in responses that are with us from birth, as well as those learned responses that come with our individual knowledge and experience that we have gained about the world we live in. Green - safe/go; Red danger/stop, for example, but these colours could well have the reverse (or completely different) meanings in other cultures. Visual signs and symbols, and gesticlations, notoriously have differing meanings to different nationalities and cultures.

Software developers will nearly always start off developing an application on the premise that since there are so many users out there who are familiar with Microsoft products, then if an application looks and behaves in the same way as a Microsoft product, then it will be instinctively and intuitively useable straight out of the box. Map Ctrl-C to 'Delete All' and Ctrl-V to 'Minimise', for example and there's going to be some very confused and unhappy users taking their software back to the shops.

Take Adobe Photoshop as an example - if you've never used Adobe products before, then much of the functionality is going to remain a mystery for a pretty long time unless you read the manual. However, a hardcore Adobe fan who has never used Photoshop before would be able to pick up the interface like an old friend. Does this make Photoshop intuitive? It does not! And here's why - it's all too common to mistake 'familiarity' for 'intuition'.

So intuition here means "meeting the user's expectations, whilst reducing the gulf of evaluation and the gulf of execution to the best possible ability". Clearly that can only be a foundation stone for the application, since not all applications are meant to achieve the same task, and there's a tiny large matter of copyright in terms of copying someone elses interface. Ironically this can mean that a developer might have to deliberately create a less intuitive interface so as to not too closely resemble a similar application which might have made a pretty good pass at an intuitive interface.

I strive to incorporate as much physchology into the software and interfaces that I create - factors such as proximity, alignment, grouping, patterns, negative and positive spaces, natural language, understanding gulf of evaluation and execution, understanding of perceptual, motor and cognitive processing, visual cues, metaphors and models - and any number of other aids to get the message across clearly to the user about how to achieve a task in hand, and I can safely say that there is always a way to make an application 'more' intuitive - there is no design plan for a complex task which will create 'the most' intuitive structure for the application.

I think there is a book in my head about user interface, trying to get out onto paper so I'm going to cut this short with a final point. There is no scale of Intuition - a user interface is not 87% intuitive, or 23% or 100% (although I've seen some pretty close to 0%). The point is - there is always scope for improvement. Which, is just as well, otherwise I might be out of an interesting job.

Kind Regards
Roger Attrill
User Interface Consultant.

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