Just like Riding a Bike

The chances are good that if you’re reading this, you probably know how to ride a bicycle.  You probably learned so many years ago that you don’t even remember how you learned.  When you get on a bike now, it’s so natural to you that you don’t even think about it.  In fact, if you did think about it, you’d probably fall off. Bike riding is so commonplace that we use it as a cliche for learning and retaining new skills:  “It’s just like riding a bike,” we say, “you never forget.”

That’s easy for you to say.  You know how to ride a bike.  I don’t.  I never learned as a child.  I’ve tried a few times as an adult, and let me remind you, it’s not easy to learn.  You fall off, you scrape your knees, you get frustrated.  Eventually (they tell me), you master it, and then it becomes “intuitive.” Yeah, sure.

Designers and engineers (and users) often praise computer interfaces as  intuitive or natural. It’s commonly held up as the ideal for user interfaces.  But I think the terms are misused. Interfaces in general, and computer interfaces in particular, exist to connect people with technological systems or tools that require significant training to master.  They abstract complexity to make it easier to use. But in order to use an interface, any interface, you need to learn a little something.  You need to be given an idea of what it controls. You need to learn what you can manipulate and what you can’t.  And you need to learn what actions map to what results.  I’ll spare you the Don Norman-esque rant here, because Gibson, Norman, et. al. have already explained all of this just fine.  If you don’t know Norman’s stuff, just think about the bike. It abstracts a lot of physics and mechanics for you, takes advantage of your physical abilities (like your sense of balance and direction), and it amplifies your body’s ability to do something — once you learn how to use it. Many would argue that it’s a good interface.  As a non-bike rider, I might argue the case, but I know I’m in the minority.

When you refer to an interface as natural or intuitive, you assume it doesn’t need to be taught, that “you can just figure it out.”  The example in vogue is the multi-touch interface, particularly Apple’s pinch-and-zoom gesture.  It gets a lot of press as being intuitive, but the truth of the matter is, if Apple hadn’t done a fairly brilliant series of tutorials disguised as commercial ads when they launched the iPhone, there’d be a lot more iPhone users struggling with their phones.  I’ve seen a lot of people pick it up pretty quickly, sure; but I’ve seen equally as many struggle with it the first time.  It has to be learned.  It may only take a few seconds, but it’s still learning.

What bothers me about all this talk of natural interfaces or intuitive interactions is that it makes designers and engineers less symathetic to end users.  If the interface is natural, we reason, anyone can use it. We get impatient with users who don’t understand it.  Not understanding the interface is not natural! They must not have any intuition! Stupid users!

In contrast, if you see all interaction as something that has to be learned, you know that you have a responsibility to teach people to use the things you build. You have motivation to make it as easy to learn as possible, both for your own convenience and theirs.  My friend Bill Braine, paraphrasing any one of a number of cognitive psychologists (including Norman), put it nicely (and I’m paraphrasing him a bit here):

Intuitive interfaces draw heavily on earlier learned behavior, while unintuitive ones require distinct new skills or metaphorical connections. That’s why so many metaphors (cut & paste, gold stars, file folders) made their way into digital interfaces. An interface’s ‘intuitiveness’ or ‘naturalness’ is a measure of  the extent to which draws on existing learned behavior.

In other words, an interface’s ease-of-use isn’t a binary quality.  It’s not natural or unnatural, intuitive or unintuitive.  There’s a sliding scale, and the scale depends not only on the cognitive load the designer assumes is there, but also on the user’s experience. If you must refer to an interface as intuitive, ask how intuitive is it? Better yet, praise the interface as easy-to-learn.

You can never eliminate the learning curve, no matter how much you flatten it out. So next time you’re frustrated by users struggling with your intuitive interface, remember  learning to ride a bike.

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