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Wondering If Intuitive Designs should be the norm?

This post will start off with a posing question that is different from the title of the post- Should Intuitive Designs be built into systems or is the adaptability to such systems/interfaces already built into us?

I often wonder about the above question and  problems  like this do stay to bother. A architect/system designer/UI designer or a product designer always (well…not always) wrestle with these kinds of questions. On the left here is the pic of my daughter playing with my mac, when this was taken she was not even three, she is now four and knows how to use cell phones, and almost all the digital devices that her dad uses at home ranging from (ipods, iphones, wii, blu-ray player, hdtv’s etc.)….sounds scary isn’t it but again I begin to wonder if this is the world we live in now, as a parent I am confused whether to be proud of it or not? However these question still loom up in the air…

As I dissect these ponderings let me come at it from the angle of first answering the title to this post: I think as systems are designed and inventions (hardware) or software’s come to life a certain amount of intuitive behavior is always built into them no matter what and they either result into friendly or not so friendly systems. From the pictures above some of the mac fans may argue it is the ease of the system that allows this four year old to watch YouTube videos on my laptop but hold that thought that’s why I merged the two images into one, the laptops on one half is a PC laptop and on the other half is the mac and the web page Hannah is watching is YouTube on both machines. She has somehow figured out watching me for a good amount of time how to click on the favorite links in Safari as well as Firefox. So the argument that the MAC interface is easier for the child or easier to use in Hannah’s case fails. Again this may not  be a very good example but there is this truth that in the systems or interfaces designed some are easier to use and some are harder or just plainly inconvenient.

The second aspect again…”I wonder” and question is if the cognitive adaptability of the mind is strong in some (and not so strong in others) that enables the end user to just figure out the system and make use of it to satisfy a given need. In Hannah’s case her need to watch cartoons made her aware of the system (ot the tool to be used), she adapted the system and the need was satisfied. Though she hasn’t figured out that the favorites “Tom & Jerry” is bookmarked on the sites whenever she pulls up that site, her adaptive mind doesn’t care whether it’s a PC or MAC, she doesn’t care if the interfaces are convenient or not but the need to watch those cartoons is satisfied by her congnitive adaptability of the system irrespective of the intuitive design. This is true in the case of systems like SAP, the manufacturing industry really needed software products that solved problems on supply chain, managing production cycles etc and SAP systems solved that very need but the user interfaces on those systems “sucked” (pardon my expression here) big time but that is the truth. The engineers solved the problem but the interfaces were clumsy to use and soon productivity over a period of time turned into time consuming nightmares with SAP specialists rising in the market (sorry SAP guys...you are special) . So the next question that arises would be ...should designers/architects of a system even bother what the end user thinks, if the need is there, the end user will adapt and learn. Unfortunately many systems both devices and softwares are designed by technical people who believe that they know best and the end users know less or for that matter the end users don't really know what they want. The evolution of systems and the design process has come a long way and the truth of the age is far from it, we live in a age where interface designing has matured not only in the everyday machines we use but in software interfaces we design. The very competitiveness of firms to survive depends on it. An interesting point to note here would be to ask what then is the balanced approach to known as to how much intuitiveness needs to be built in so that it is easy to use, learning cycles are cut short, and finally it is easy to adapt.

Another interesting question that I will pose here is how do we measure those balances while designing such systems? We know maturity models optimize processes, procedures and product development but adaptability will be a hard one to measure as humans are capable of adapting at different levels of cognition, but at the end of the day I will settle for a system that has high form factor, high functionality and high adaptability in every area of design engineering. A design approach like the one graphically represented here from Anothony Robinson's six stage UI design work flow makes perfect sense to me if the approach is user centric, iterative. This approach though may have longer gestation periods and may be expensive in the beginning the plus's are the longer life cycle of the product and a support engineer's boon  - less maintenance and bug fixes. Now this may vary from industry to industry but this is a good start.

So in short...systems should have built in them the ease of use graphical or logical intuitiveness. System designers and Product designers should start by defining usability and utility (mind you they are different) from a the perspective of the all types of users in the mass, know the limitations that you cannot please everybody (a certain level of adaptability will be assumed from certain segments) and the result is we have a process defined for intuitive design to be the norm.

Sorry this post must have posed more questions than having answered them but these spaces are placeholders for my thoughts and I am sure I will revisit it soon.

Sam Kurien

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