Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Intuitive (?) Computer Interfaces

Like I have said before, my friend Aneesh has this uncanny habit of bringing up topics that are really very interesting to talk about. A couple of emails ago (we exchange emails almost every other day) he suggested that people should start thinking about ‘intuitive’ computer interfaces. This got me thinking and here is what I thought:

What is Intuition?

It is a commonly held notion that there is something that there are aspects to human behavior that are ‘natural’ and can be isolated from learned behavior. It is this part of human behavior that is termed as ‘intuitive’.

Human beings do seem to be born with certain intuitive abilities. For example, there is 3D navigation. The fact that the world is three dimensional is an understanding that we are just born with. So is an understanding of passage of time. And even as adults, or even as professionals (physicists) we are not really able to define what time or 3D space is.

Some research has shown that the representation of the 3D world inside a human mind is ego-centric. This means that when we think of things we don’t think about them in a global sense. We just think in terms of their relative distances and locations from our own locations.

On the other hand, lots of human behavior is acquired and internalized. For example, there is this notion that things which are piled together are somehow related to each other. Thus, we file papers together in a file, put related files together into folders and store related folders in the same cabinet.

But the problem with this kind of behavior is that this kind of intuition changes from groups of individual to groups of individuals. For example, it is almost intuitive for me that switches when flicked downward switch things on. But this intuition is not true in the US where things go the other way round.

Problems with Computer Interfaces

Computer interfaces can be intuitive or not depending on the way you look at them. For example, take scroll bars. Now the real life way of doing things in this – if I’m holding a paper that I’m reading then to read the lower portion of the paper I move my hand upwards. However, if I’m reading something on a computer, I have to move my hand downward to read the lower portion of a text. This is completely opposite of what I’d expect it to do if I’ve never used a computer.

However, the same situation can be looked at in another way. What if I look at the scroll bar as a handle to a ‘viewport’ through which I’m viewing my paper? In this case, the behavior of the scrollbar would make perfect sense.

So one observes that not only is intuition difficult to define, the same interface can be seen as intuitive or not intuitive based on how it is visualized.

In my opinion, there is no use devising an intuitive interface. This is because by conforming to the behavior patterns that humans already conform to one will have to forgo a variety of ‘artificial’ behavior patterns that computers allow for and which are more efficient in various manners. The learning curve, of course, will be steeper in the case of intuitive interfaces but there really is no reason to believe that simpler and easier to learn non-intuitive interfaces cannot be built.

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