The words metaphor and intuitive are often used in UX. They are the metrics we use to judge the quality of a solution. But is this quality really as universal as we might like to believe?
Let me introduce you to my mom. (Insert random “yo’ momma” joke here)
Some years ago I needed a file from my parents’ computer sent to me. I called my mom (my dad wasn’t home) and asked her to send the file. As my mom isn’t the most avid user, I knew I would have to guide her through the process. No biggie, I thought.
The conversation went like this:
Me: OK, so you go to the desktop and open the mail client.
Mom: I am at the desk.
Me: No, not the desk, the desktop on the computer.
Mom: Where is that?
Me: Click on the little icon on the bottom of the screen next to where it says “Start.”
Mom: Internet Explorer?
Me: No, the next one.
Mom: Which button do I push?
Me: The left one.
Mom: Nothing happens.
Me: What do you mean nothing happens?
Mom: Well, a small window pops up. Is that the desktop?
Me: No, you are right-clicking. You need to click the left button.
Mom: But I am!
We go back an forth for several minutes, with me trying to convince her that she is, in fact, pushing the right (wrong!) button. Then, suddenly:
Mom: Oops! Everything just disappeared and now there are only small icons. What did I do wrong?
Me: No, that’s it! You did it right. That’s the desktop.
Mom: OK, but I pressed the right button.
Me: Hmm…weird. Well, anyway, open your mail client—that’s the icon I showed you, and double-click the left button.
Mom: OK, but nothing happens. That little box pops up again.
Me: Mom, I am telling you, you are clicking the right-hand button. You need to click the left one.
Mom: But I am! It’s just really difficult.
Me: What do you mean difficult? You just double-click the left button!
Mom: I know, but this is not behaving like it used to.
Me: What do you mean?
Mom: When I go up, it goes down, and it’s really difficult to double-click with my thumbs.
(Short confusion, followed by blink of light bulb flashing on.)
Of course, now I realized what was going on. She had the mouse upside down!
I talked to my dad later that night and found out what had happened.
Instead of the mouse cord going behind the desk and into the back of the computer, it was plugged in at the front of the desk, into the USB port on the front of the computer. The mouse had been pulled around but she didn’t intuitively get that. She thought that this was how it had been before, and that she just didn’t quite understand. Mind you, she had used a computer before.
My mom is not stupid, yet she was unable to do some of the most basic tasks in navigating a computer. She is certainly not the only one. The latest Facebook glitch (read the comments) made it painfully obvious that there are many other people who might use computers but lack the holistic insights of the digital natives.
Metaphors as a tool for intuition.
In UX we often ask ourselves whether our design is intuitive, i.e., can the user figure out how to do the things we want them to do on their own by the visual clues and design patterns we provide?
We go to great lengths to ensure easy understanding. We make the button look like something you can press. We always make sure that the navigation is prominent and follows certain nomenclature. We use desktop as a reference, windows, pull-downs, accordions, etc. We call them metaphors, but very seldom do we question whether those metaphors are as intuitive and universally understood as we assume.
In the case of my mom, there is obviously little connection between the physical desktop and its digital counterpart. To her, the metaphors we use are nothing more than words—words that get lost in the stress of trying to navigate through an environment she doesn’t really understand.
To my mom, there is no connection between the top bars in MS Word and Outlook. The convention of almost always having File – Edit – View – Help, wrap around the functionality of any given application is completely lost on her.
And my mom is not the only one. There are millions of people who can’t find their way around a computer unless they are told specifically what to do. The second they step off the well-known paths, they are, quite literally, lost. This was made rather obvious when hordes of Facebook users complained about the new log-in procedure.
I have often compared the experience of the noob with dropping a geek into the wilderness of the African savanna with the wrong map.
As non-natives, we are forced to try to follow the map and instructions we are given of this strange and unknown area. As long as the map matches the territory we are fine. But if the map is wrong, what do we do? There are no metaphors from the urban jungle that we can take and apply. The map doesn’t prepare us for what we meet on our way.
The environment is completely alien and we fail to navigate it intuitively. Not because we are stupid, mind you. We simply lack the experience of a native.
What separates digital natives from non-natives is that the former understand computers holistically. Whatever the digital natives encounter, they can typically quickly figure out what to do by nature of having a better understanding of the environment.
Noobs in the digital space don’t understand things holistically. They barely understand the basics. They lack any cognitive surplus to provide themselves with an overview of the environment they interact with.
Which brings me to three observations:
Intuition is learned.
Something is intuitive not because it’s universally understood but because we have learned the meaning of it from a holistic point of view. This requires lots and lots of experience and, for that matter, trial and error.
Metaphors are only meaningful in retrospect.
Don’t count on the physical-looking button to be intuitive just because it’s a metaphor from real life. Once you tell someone what a specific element means, they will most probably understand it, but not because of the metaphor itself.
There are no Bablefish in UX
Designing products and services is like speaking French. Not everyone understands it. Comprenez-vous? The noob might pick up a word here and there, but they aren’t, by any metrics, comfortable with participating in the conversation.
This all leads to the following conclusion:
Intuitive interaction is for experts, not for noobs
Understanding something intuitively really means that you understand it holistically. If you understand it holistically, you can fill in the gaps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your design intuitive or improve on it—not at all. Just understand that you are doing it for the natives, not for the noobs.
So let’s stop obsessing over whether something is intuitive and start obsessing over whether it’s understandable. That is going to be the topic of my next post.
Let me know what you think.
Note #1: As always HackerNews has some great comments with regards to my article.