Archives, Excerpt from Real Life, In the Media

Intuitive Computing

MARCH 21, 2013
in·tu·i·tion 
noun

  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.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s