9 May, 2008
I recently came across a wonderful article on “Intuitive Interfaces”. Executive summary: people don’t really mean “intuitive” when they use that word to refer to interfaces.
They don’t mean it when they talk about games, either.
The article’s main point is that when people say “intuitive”, they often really mean “familiar”. The author stated that when people say they want a “better” interface, they still want something familiar. No matter how much more efficient a new interface is, if it is not “intuitive” (that is, familiar to the user) then it is not an improvement. Many people consider the learning curve to figure out a completely new and improved interface not to be worth the effort.
The reason I found this article so interesting is because I see the same thing in games. In the past, people lamented because games weren’t “innovative”. The problem was that if someone did do something innovative, it usually failed if it was too different. People still wanted an element of the familiar in the game, something that related to their previous game-playing experiences. This lead to the contradiction that giving people the innovative and even improved gaming experience they claimed to want would often result in failure because it usually wasn’t familiar enough.
The article sums up this contradiction as: “Intuitive = uses readily transferred, existing skills.” This is why you have “standard” interfaces for different types of games. For example, all RTSes have a menu of build options in one corner of the screen. Left-click usually selects a unit, and right-click moves the unit to a location. Any RTS game that does not follow this convention will be seen as confusing and not “intuitive”, even if the control scheme is better for one reason or another. Unfortunately, once you start following certain conventions, you are limited in how far you can push your design outside what has come before.
The other reason I found this article interesting is because it is from 1994. It’s funny that people have still been incorrectly calling interfaces “intuitive” for all these years. In fact, one of the first few posts on this blog was about “intuitive interfaces”, or the myth of these beasts even existing.
What do you think? Are interfaces really “intuitive”? Or, do most people really talk about familiarity? If familiarity is the key here, how do we push the envelope to include something different if people only judge things based on how it fits their previous experiences?