Intuitive Computing

MARCH 21, 2013

  1. direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension. 2. a fact, truth, etc., perceived in this way.                                                                3. a keen and quick insight.              4. the quality or ability of having such direct perception or quick insight.      5. Philosophy a. an immediate cognition of a object not inferred or determined  by a previous cognition of the same object.  b. any object or truth so discerned. c. pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge.

When a tech person describes an interface as intuitive (the adjective form of intuition), I get a little rankled. I admit, this is a pet peeve of mine, and it’s not worth initiating an argument.

It rankles me because computers aren’t natural and every part of them is based on logic, not anything intuitive.

Every new iteration of software and hardware makes changes that are meant to improve user experience for the better. If experienced users like the changes–for example, it saves them time or effort– they compliment the change and mistakenly call it “intuitive”. What I think they mean to say is,”thanks for building on my previous user experience instead of recreating the wheel at every step. Because you built on my previous knowledge, I make educated guesses about how to use the product, and I’m right 98% of the time.” 

In contrast, a novice trying to use this same technology wouldn’t have the same success. They’d stumble through the user experience like a first time user always does. If the computers or software were really, truly intuitive, that would not happen, now would it? We wouldn’t need user manuals, tutorial books and classes on how to use computers if anything about them was really, truly intuitive.

No one was born with, or is naturally, psychically equipped to, use hardware and software from the start. One way or another, a person had to learn it, in order to get a feel for the programmers’ and designers’ logic and layout. Once the user figured out that logic, it’s easier and faster to learn even more logic created by other programmers or designers. I’m not a neurologist, but I assume once the pathways have been laid out in your brain, more can happen on those pathways, and continue to be built.

I’ve often wondered if I’m the only person rankled by this misuse of the word “intuitive”. Apparently not. The following quote is attributed to Jay Vollmer in 1995

“Actually, the only truly intuitive interface is the nipple.”

Variations of this quote are attributed to Steve Jobs, Bruce Ediger, Scott Francis, and Taylor Hutt. Ediger felt it was all learned, including nipples. Some human babies are stubborn to nurse, some mothers don’t produce milk, or not enough. This is true.

Honestly though, humans are highly unusual mammals. We don’t rely on nature, we’ve created systems to counter nature every step of the way, so why wouldn’t our natural instincts start fading as well?

Among wild mammal populations, and even our domesticated dogs and cats, nipples remain intuitive. Wild baby mammals must be nursing within 24 hours of birth, otherwise, they would die from starvation. I’m not saying that wild babies never die from starvation, but that’s the exception, not the rule. 


Let’s just say “I have a feeling” that “intuitive” as it’s misused in computing, is a battle I will ultimately lose. English is in a constant state of flux. If enough people use one word a certain way, a new meaning is established, whether it’s consistent with the previous meanings or not. 

For example, “font”. When people say font in reference to software, they really mean a typeface: Helvetica is a typeface, while Helvetica Bold 14 is a font. But only graphic designers know that, and knew that prior to the computing revolution. They were the only ones who had to know it.

Meanwhile, whoever designed the software chose the word “Font” in his/her menu options. Maybe because it’s a shorter, catchier word that neatly fits in a menu box with a keystroke shortcut. Non-designer users of the software then start calling their  ypography decisions a font choice. They didn’t know any better, and after all, that’s what the command is called.

Because I love language and I have studied design, I’ll still call it a typeface. Then when another person asks, “what?what do you mean?”. I’ll reply, “You know, the font…”

These are the wordgeek’s blues.




MARCH 20, 2013.

The of & illness, :

Today on Currying_favor, I tweeted a link to a editorial piece by Caroline Ravello in the Trinidad Guardian. 

She talks about labels for people with a mental illness, and how they are all derogatory on some level. There’s really no respectful way to talk about mental illness without implying there’s a defect or failure on the part of the sufferer. In English, Mad, lunatic, crazy, maniac, and manic are just a few examples. 

I have to wonder:

  • What came first, the general bad attitude and fear of the mentally ill, or the labels? ‘Doesn’t this create monsters where none existed? 
  • If we weren’t so focused on one difference, instead of another person’s obvious humanity, and everything that remains relatable between ourselves and that person, would our labels reflect more compassion and respect instead of disdain?

There’s a lot of ways people who suffer with mental illness are dehumanized by prevalant and socially acceptable ignorance. A lot of people don’t seek treatment they want and need because their health insurance, their career path, or both will be permanently harmed by that decision.

Clearly we’re teaching our children wrong, then, because it’s supposed to be a mature, rational decision to ask for help when we need it, ‘isn’t it?

We are more aware than ever that a lot of people suffer with mental illnesses, for example, PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Yet there’s still a lot most people don’t know about mental illnesses, or understand about different mental illnesses until they experience one themselves, or someone they care about develops one.

Enter “Mad Pride”, a movement started in Toronto in the 1990s to re-define “mad” as self-descriptive, but not stigmatizing terms. I hadn’t heard about this movement before now, but I do hope it gains traction. International Mad Pride Day is July 14. ‘Was it intentional to share France’s Bastille Day? I don’t know, but I think it works.

We need a more compassionate world; if we ostracize people who are different, we run out of people to talk to, and our world becomes overburdened with problems rather than solutions.

Click here for more about Mad Pride Day.




The Bible in Our Cultural Literacy

MARCH 18, 2013

Actress Roma Downey, and her husband, television producer Mark Burnett, were featured on this weekend’s CBS Sunday Morning. They were promoting their Sunday night mini-series, “The Bible”, on History Channel. Sunday night has been a ratings magnet for dramas for decades, whether the channel is PBS, ABC, or HBO. Sunday is a religious day for Christians. ‘You really couldn’t televise such a mini-series on a more appropriate night, ‘could you?

But I am really not here to promote the show, actually to highlight something that came up in the interview:

“We don’t need to make more TV.This is way more than that. . . . It’s a movement. It’s the Bible. It’s something everybody should know. Even if you don’t want to go to church, or believe, you should know these stories.” —Mark Burnett  (click link to watch interview)

Even in times, like the present, when Americans are leaving organized religion in droves, there are merits to reading and knowing the Bible. Why? We are a Judeo-Christian culture, and nothing will ever change that. 

If someone were studying Islamic and Arab culture and/or literature, they’d have to know the Koran.

If someone were studying Israeli or Jewish culture and/or literature, they’d need to know the Torah, or have someone religious explain allegories to them. 

Religious texts are deeply woven into history and referenced throughout Western literature. You don’t have to believe in the faith or call it your own, but you do need to know its stories and the meanings of those stories.

Let Me Get This Straight…

MARCH 11, 2013


  • you had spinach in your teeth
  • your pants’ zipper was down in public
  • you exited the toilet with toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

You would want to know about it.

‘But online or offline communication errors are out of bounds?

Do you know who proofreads what she types quite often?

‘Even if she got it wrong after hitting send, will correct it, or delete and start over (if it’s an option)? This woman.

Because I am a writer.

I am judged by my words and my skills with words.

Furthermore, I love words, and I always have.

I care about communicating effectively, if I’m going to bother saying anything at all.

And that takes work, and thought, and rethought–even for the professionals.



Inc. Magazine had a good post today about getting and taking advice as an entrepreneur. Its own advice extends beyond the entrepreneurship field.

Advice is rampant. There would be no self-help industry or celebrity book industry without advice, would there?

I would bet for every time advice was requested, it was given freely 5 times more.

I can only add 4 things:

  • Sometimes, advice is what someone would tell their younger selves, not necessarily you, the advice’s recipient.
  • Sometimes, it’s completely applicable. If the recipient is really offended, there’s some truth in there somewhere. This isn’t a license to be rude, it’s just a reminder that inconvenient truths often sting.
  • Sometimes, it’s just rambling, and should be taken with a Gibraltar-size grain of salt. 
  • If I could add just one last thing, if you’re young, if you’re broke, if you don’t fit the appearance mold or the personality mold, everyone has plenty ideas of what’s not working for you. That doesn’t mean they’re right; it could mean you’re pursuing the wrong goals among the wrong crowd.