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Intuitive is the Enemy of Good

In the previous instalment, I discussed an interview in which Alan Kay maligned growth-restricted user interfaces. Here’s the quote again:

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles, etc. and to a lesser extent automobiles).

This is nowhere more evident than in the world of the mobile app. Any one app comprises a very small number of very focussed, very easy to use features. This has a couple of different effects. One is that my phone as a whole is an incredibly broad, incredibly shallow experience. For example, one goal I want help with from technology is:

As an obese programmer, I want to understand how I can improve my lifestyle in order to live longer and be healthier.

Is there an app for that? No; I have six apps that kindof together provide an OK, but pretty disjointed experience that gets me some dissatisfying way toward my goal. I can tell three of these apps how much I run, but I have to remember that some subset can feed information to the others but the remainder cannot. I can tell a couple of them how much I ate, but if I do it in one of them then another won’t count it correctly. Putting enough software to fulfil my goal into one app presumably breaks the cardinal rule of making every feature available within two gestures of the app’s launch screen. Therefore every feature is instead hidden behind the externalised myriad gestures required to navigate my home screens and their folders to get to the disparate subsets of utility.

The second observable effect is that there is a lot of wasted potential in both the device, and the person operating that device. You have never met an expert iPhone user, for the simple reason that someone who’s been using an iPhone for six years is no more capable than someone who has spent a week with their new device diligently investigating. There is no continued novelty, there are no undiscovered experiences. There is no expertise. Welcome to the land of the perpetual beginner.

Thankfully, marketing provided us with a thought-terminating cliché, to help us in our discomfort with this situation. They gave us the cars and trucks analogy. Don’t worry that you can’t do everything you’d expect with this device. You shouldn’t expect to do absolutely everything with this device. Notice the sleight of brain?

Let us pause for a paragraph to notice that even if making the most simple, dumbed-down (wait, sorry, intuitive) experience were our goal, we use techniques that keep that from within our grasp. An A/B test will tell you whether this version is incrementally “better” than that version, but will not tell you whether the peak you are approaching is the tallest mountain in the range. Just as with evolution, valley crossing is hard without a monumental shake-up or an interminable period of neutral drift.

Desktop environments didn’t usually get this any better. The learning path for most WIMP interfaces can be listed thus:

  1. cannot use mouse.
  2. can use mouse, cannot remember command locations.
  3. can remember command locations.
  4. can remember keyboard shortcuts.
  5. ???
  6. programming.

A near-perfect example of this would be emacs. You start off with a straightforward modeless editor window, but you don’t know how to save, quit, load a file, or anything. So you find yourself some cheat-sheet, and pretty soon you know those things, and start to find other things like swapping buffers, opening multiple windows, and navigating around a buffer. Then you want to compose a couple of commands, and suddenly you need to learn LISP. Many people will cap out at level 4, or even somewhere between 3 and 4 (which is where I am with most IDEs unless I use them day-in, day-out for months).

The lost magic is in level 5. Tools that do a good job of enabling improvement without requiring that you adopt a skill you don’t identify with (i.e. programming, learning the innards of a computer) invite greater investment over time, rewarding you with greater results. Photoshop gets this right. Automator gets it right. AppleScript gets it wrong; that’s just programming (in fact it’s all the hard bits from Smalltalk with none of the easy or welcoming bits). Yahoo! Pipes gets it right but markets it wrong. Quartz Composer nearly gets it right. Excel is, well, a bit of a boundary case.

The really sneaky bit is that level 5 is programming, just with none of the trappings associated with the legacy way of programming that professionals do it. No code (usually), no expressing your complex graphical problem as text, no expectation that you understand git, no philosophical wrangling over whether squares are rectangles or not. It’s programming, but with a closer affinity with the problem domain than bashing out semicolons and braces. Level 5 is where we can enable people to get the most out of their computers, without making them think that they’re computering.

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