Rotary telephone vs. iPhone

Question: Is the iPhone (or iPad) intuitive?

Answer: Maybe.

In the past few months I’ve been consulting with two clients, helping them design interfaces to new products. What do they say they want? “Cool,” “slick,” “wow factor,” “cutting edge,” and, of course, “intuitive.” One of them seems to think the iPhone is the crème de la crème, insisting that everything mimic the iPhone/iPad interface as much as possible. It seems the frenzy the iPhone started has only increased with the launch of the iPad.

I’m not here to say the iPhone and iPad aren’t intuitive, but there are varying evaluations of how user-friendly they really are. One of the key points of Jakob Nielsen’s iPad usability article deals with users (not) knowing where/what to click. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, what’s so hard about knowing where to click? How to use the iPad/iPhone is obvious, isn’t it? Doesn’t everyone know how to use it?

Or is it only obvious if you are already interface-aware?

Permit me to challenge the assumption that some technology is so simple everyone should automatically know what to do with it. I have an 11th edition computer book from a popular publisher sitting on my bookshelf. Its cover, like their other books, is totally yellow, and its title implies it is the the most basic computer book available for ignorant PC users. It also claims to be “best selling.” When I open to to the section on setting the clock in Microsoft Windows, there is a six step process. I’ll cut to the chase. Steps 1 through 4 are instructions on locating and opening the clock panel. Step 6 is clicking the OK button to close the panel. Here’s step 5:

“Manipulate the controls in the Date and Time properties dialog box to change or set the date or time.”

Did you catch that, novice computer user? Just “manipulate the controls!” Simple, right? Well, I’ve scanned this book for any sort of introduction to manipulating basic Windows controls. Guess what? There isn’t one. So the author apparently assumed that every user somehow already understands what controls are, how to recognize them on the screen, and how to manipulate them. Clearly, those controls must be “intuitive,” but that’s not what my experience with novice users shows. I could easily recount a dozen encounters that demonstrate users hadn’t the faintest grasp of interface concepts or standardized UI controls.

So today’s question is: are the iPhone and iPad any different? Are they truly intuitive, or merely intuitive for users already possessing a firm grasp of interface concepts (perhaps having achieved that grasp by experience with multiple predecessor interfaces)? Well, to make things interesting, let’s compare the iPhone against the very first commercial telephone: the rotary dial. By comparison, if the iPhone needs no explanation, then a basic telephone should surely be wholly intuitive. After all, everyone knows how to use a simple telephone, right? Intuitive! No explanation needed! Well, feast your eyes (but not ears) on this original training film from AT&T circa 1927 on How to Use The Dial Phone. I remember using a rotary phone when I was very, very young. It seemed simple enough to me, but when it was introduced, perhaps it wasn’t the easiest technology to understand. Why? In 1927, it would have been considered a very innovative product — much like the iPhone today — and the user base likely had no existing interface awareness. I’m sure the designers thought it was pretty simple. But it apparently took a video tutorial to explain the technology.

So I leave you with these questions to ponder. If something is “intuitive” only because the users have prerequisite interface knowledge, then is it truly intuitive? Perhaps nothing is truly intuitive without some training or conditioning. Yet, as I’ve written before here on Explain Technology, there probably has to be a baseline assumption of interface knowledge that manufacturers can rely on. Apple surely has to draw the line in the sand somewhere. Others have to do the same or they’ll take forever to make it to market with that next innovative product. But stop and think: who is responsible for building users’ interface acumen to bring them up to that line in the sand? The trend suggests the users themselves shoulder that burden.

I predict as more innovative products are moved to market faster, gaps will widen in consumers’ understanding, and the uniquely intuitive interface may be more unattainable than ever, leaving yet more opportunities for explaining technology.

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