WritersUA 2014 Day 1: Del Taco and learning

Palm SpringsWhen I went to Palm Springs for WritersUA, I made a commitment: I wouldn’t eat at Del Taco. We’ve been eating there a lot lately at home, and if I were going to drive all the way to Palm Springs, I wanted to eat something different.

I had a few moments before the conference started, so I walked around the area to look for some place to eat. And where did I wind up? Del Taco.

This demonstrates a tendency we all have to gravitate to the familiar. There are ways that we can use this tendency to help us learn new things. This was covered in different ways in the two workshops I attended today.

Cognitive Techniques: How to Fill in the Blanks

Ray Gallon’s workshop, “Cognitive Techniques to User Assistance,” looked at how we can learn new things by building upon things we already know. To use one of his examples, if you know how to work with a maître d’ to select a seat in a restaurant, you can use similar principles on an airline website to help people pick a seat on a flight. Although the processes are different, you can look for tasks that can be generalized to help people learn in unfamiliar situations.

He advised that we consider deductive reasoning to help us design user assistance. It isn’t necessary to spell out all of the details of a procedure, but we need to provide enough information so that the user knows what to do.

A term he brought up, which was also brought up in the next session, is affordance. We need to provide clear visual clues of how to use an item. If you see a handle on a door, you know you’re supposed to pull it open. (It’s frustrating to see a handle on a door you’re supposed to push.) By using principles like affordance, we can design interfaces where it is clear what we’re supposed to do.

Gallon ended with an emphatic plea for better user assistance. He told the story of a hospital in France where patients died because they received too much radiation during therapy. One of the reasons was that the user manuals were not in French so the technicians can read them. He stressed how quality user assistance can save lives, or at least limit a company’s liability.

User Interface as Conversation

Everett McKay took a different approach. He envisioned the user interface as a conversation between the user and product.

A good interface has to answer the user’s main question, “What am I supposed to do here?” To answer it, the user interface should be conversational in tone. It should address the user in the same way as if the user asked another person how to do a task. The interface should be designed around the user’s goals, not the features. McKay said, “What we say in person is the right explanation.”

He also said that the interface should set the same tone in prompts and messages as what people would say to each other. “We shouldn’t give software a pass on rudeness.” One example showed a message with “Error” in big red letters and a warning icon, but asked, “Please provide a daytime phone number.” In addition to the mixed tone, the message didn’t explain why the daytime number was even needed.

Text isn’t the only way to communicate with the user. (However, using a conversational tone reduces the amount of text on the screen because it eliminates information that is unnecessary.) The software must also provide an understandable and consistent visual language. He used the term affordance again, and he talked about the importance of consistency and expected behavior. For example, in iOS, all programs use the same swipe gesture to select an item for deletion, but in Android, swipe could mean different things depending on the application.

The conversational tone enables interfaces to be truly intuitive, which McKay defines as an interface that is immediately self-explanatory and communicates its purpose well.

If you would like to learn more about his theories of user interface design, check out his book UI is Communication: How to Design Intuitive, User Centered Interfaces by Focusing on Effective Communication.

He also ended with a plea for better user interface design. “‘Fail quickly’ isn’t always the right solution.” If companies have the time and money to fix problems, they would be better off on using them to do the design right the first time.

Today, I got two great sessions on how to use the familiar to learn new things. Now, I need to use the familiar to find something new and interesting for dinner.