Taking a lesson from Harry Potter

November 16, 2010

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry walks to the opening of a small tent and peers inside, only to find the inside is actually the interior of an enormous house. In response, Harry smiles and says to himself, “I love magic.”

Technology users love “magic,” too, but most of us understand enough about how modern devices work to demystify the magic, making them just “cool,” not magic. But I think there’s a lesson we can learn from Harry Potter’s magic tent experience. For just as Harry wasn’t totally astonished to see what was inside the tent, neither are the technology-savvy surprised or confounded when adopting a next-generation technology bearing new interface concepts. So why are older adopters? In particular, why are those who have never used modern technology more confused than ever even though terrific new interface developments like touch-screen phones are eliminating some of the physical interface barriers of the past?

Back in Why Do “Old Folks” Need Technology Explained, Anyway, I mentioned how evolving technology usually piggybacks on previous technology in a stair-step fashion. This means that unless a user has experience with the previous technology reference point, a newer technology based on the previous one is not easier to understand but harder. For example, if a person doesn’t understand what a standard two-button computer mouse is for, then the newer mouse with a scroll wheel only makes it more daunting and less understandable. In light of this, let’s consider the new generation of smartphones with the touchable, swipable interfaces that I continually hear lauded as “intuitive!”

If you’ve followed this blog long enough, you’ve probably noted that I have given indications that touchscreen technology is both a good development and yet presents many challenges. Lest you think I’m not content either way, let me forever clarify my position on touchable/swipable interfaces: for those users past the initial mental hurdles associated with software-driven interfaces, touch screens will be wonderful. The ability to touch, swipe, and move content on the screen via finger(s) rather than an intermediary (mouse) does offer great opportunities for implementing interfaces that are more natural. Current smartphones are a great example. In light of this, today’s question to ponder is: then why are smartphones just as confusing for brand new technology users as PCs? If their interfaces are so intuitive, why can’t everyone just pick one up and naturally understand how it works? After all, there’s no mouse, no clicking vs. double-clicking to explain, etc.

Here’s a scenario to challenge your thinking. Have you ever put a smartphone in front of a person who is not already a PC user? (Let that percolate for just a minute. Never used a PC. Not familiar with software interface concepts. Yes, such people are out there.) If you’ve done this (and have undoubtedly had to talk them through it), what was their reaction the first time you swiped the screen? I’ll bet it was something like this. First, a confused, blank stare at the device, followed by the inevitable “I don’t understand” sheepish look. And then: “Where’d everything go? What’s this stuff? Why is this on the screen now? Why is the stuff that was there before no longer there?”

It’s like magic. But why? Why do they act like what is no longer on the screen is gone forever? Why are they confused by something now appearing on the screen that wasn’t there before? I think it’s something stemming from the Software Generation Gap. For non-software users, a pre-software (solid state) interface is what it is and that’s all it ever is. So what’s the chief difference between this person and you? You have already mastered the previous-generation technology and understand software-driven interface concepts. You have already experienced and internalized what Harry Potter experienced with the magic-driven tent. With a software-driven device, paradoxically, the inside is larger than the outside.

You see, though a mouse and scrollbars are not the most intuitive interface conventions, because you previously adopted, mastered, and mentally internalized them, next-generation smartphone interfaces make perfect sense to you because your mental model already supports the fact that much more can exist outside the boundaries of the screen. The non-software user, on the other hand, can’t (yet) conceptualize what I’ve sketched here:

A diagram or a phonephone's off-screen real estate

You see, you already understand that the inside is larger than the outside, so simply using a different technique to move what is off-screen onto/into the screen doesn’t require you to change your mental model. For you, the only difference is physical — that you’re now using your finger to bring what is off-screen into the screen space, rather than a clunky old mouse. Because you have already used scrollbars on a PC, you think nothing of accessing something off-screen. The freedom to interact sans mouse is what makes you think it’s a radically new, intuitive experience. But for as marvelous as touch-screen technology is, it is not even half of what makes touchable, swipable interfaces “intuitive.” The intuitive part comes from what’s already in your mind. You are unconsciously leveraging the mental concepts drawn from your PC software experience. I’d argue that this is what makes the smartphone’s interface seem so intuitive and quick to learn. Already possessing a solid mental model allows you to feel that the physical interface is more “natural” than the virtual one requiring a mouse.

So where does this leave us? I guarantee that once core software concepts are understood, it doesn’t matter so much if the mechanism to slide content through a screen/viewport is a mouse, trackpad, finger directly on-screen, hand gestures in the air, voice commands, or an eye-tracking technique. Humans can adapt remarkably well once they have a model for how they need to behave. The device itself isn’t the hurdle that prevents folks from understanding; it’s the concepts that present the gap. Until the gap can be bridged for newcomers, the digital world might as well be as magic as Harry Potter’s.


So simple it’s state-of-the-art!

November 1, 2010

I continue to engage in some occasional consulting on interface design. Most recently, I encountered a challenge: a client was deploying a web site for an internal audience which, by the client’s own admission, didn’t know how to use their PCs well nor did they have much time to “figure out” an interface. The client’s expectations were, in short, for an interface so simple that users with no PC knowledge could quickly use it. At the same time, it needed to be “state-of-the-art.” Say again?

At one of my previous companies, our designers operated on the premise of “elegant simplicity,” so I know that having a simple interface make a striking and memorable impression is not impossible. But simple form is different from simple functionality. The users in question undoubtedly needed simple functionality because their computer skills were weak. Yet, there was a  simultaneous demand for “state-of-the-art” functionality — something cutting-edge, modern, and “next-generation” both visually and functionally. I was told both had equal priority. Something had to give. Read the rest of this entry »