3 Intuitive Use
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As electronic objects accumulate an ever increasing number of functions, they become more and more difficult to learn to use. One could give endless examples of small catastrophes resulting from failure to master overly-complex products, such as accidental erasure of photos in a digital camera, or electronic devices given as gifts that never get used because the recipient is unable or unwilling to learn to use the abstruse command sequence.
One of the essential criteria of usability is that the operation of the tool should be easy to learn.
An object can be doted with "intuitive use" by designing it so that its operation can be learned simply by observing it. This approach was pioneered by Donald A. Norman in his 1989 book "The Psychology of Everyday Things" (since renamed "The Design of Everyday Things"). Norman pointed out that as well as interacting physically with objects, human beings interact psychologically with them. Norman’s initial reflections on the nature of our subconscious psychological interaction with our surroundings provided the starting point for trendy topics such as "user centered design" and "human computer interaction" (HCI).
Norman observed that the tool itself can give us clues as to how to use it. For example, a control device such as a knob or switch can relate visually with the object it affects. Norman called this "mapping."
A cogent example is given in the article "Don’t get burned by bad mapping," by Wayne Greenwood. His example concerns knobs for turning on stove burners:
The typical cooktop features four burners arranged in a flat square, with a burner in each corner. However, the knobs that operate those burners are laid out in a straight line on the front of the unit. ... Does twisting the left-most knob turn on the left/front burner, or does it turn on the left/rear burner? The answer to this question is usually found by trial and error, or by referring to the tiny icons next to the knobs, even when the person has used the oven before.
As Greenwood points out, this uncertainty can be removed by laying out the knobs in a square, such that the position of each knob in the square corresponds visually with the position of the burners on the cooktop. With one quick glance, the user intuitively understands exactly which knob turns on which burner.
Intuitive use and stored knowledge
The specialised literature on intuitive use focuses on the question of the extent to which we unconsciously use knowledge stored from other experiences. Consider for example the following citation from the abstract of an article by Blackler, Popovic and Mahar, entitled "Studies of Intuitive Use Employing Observation and Concurrent Protocol" (2004):
Intuition is a type of cognitive processing that is often unconscious and utilises stored experiential knowledge. Intuitive use of products involves utilising knowledge gained through other products or experiences. So, things that people use intuitively are those that employ features they have encountered before.
The role of prior knowledge in intuitive use is also examined in the following two papers available on-line:
Limits to intuitive use
There are however limits to what can be obtained in the way of intuitive use, as pointed out in an on-line interview on usability, with Dr. Nico Pals and Joke Korte from TNO:
Some goals which should be realized with communication devices are so complex that intuitive use without prior knowledge is not realizable. ... The goal is to design a service as intuitive as possible during first interaction. Later on, when the user got used to the basic levels of interaction, he or she will often be more prepared to go through some trouble to learn, for example, the extra features for extra functionality. We might never reach the utopia of intuitive services and products, but we can try to get as close as possible with good design.
Thus in practice it is often necessary to make a compromise between intuitive use, which is important for the basic functions of the tool, and learned use, which permits development of more complex functionality.