December 15, 2009

Brains.... Brains... Brains and Usability


Dave George, one of our senior user experience designers, and I are just back from a one-day session discussing "The Human Mind and Usability," presented in San Francisco by the Nielsen Norman Group. The session focused on the area where computing and cognition overlap, with the intent that, by better understanding the psychology, we can produce applications that are optimized for our users' brains.

As an avid amateur psychologist myself, I found a lot of the material familiar -- the grisly Stanford Guard experiment, the magic of the number 7 -- and so did Dave. This is reassuring: we're au courant. I did come away with some ideas about the cognitive aspects of our designs, which we haven't explicitly considered. For example:

Let's be subjective: Don Norman, in Emotion and Design, says "Attractive things work better." (And he presents some interesting research backing the claim.) In our design process, we've emphasized compliance with existing standards (such as platforms and widget behaviors), users' success (at completing tasks) and an inclusive approach to supporting emerging server features. We haven't looked much at the experience itself, though. Can it be made pleasant, maybe even delightful? (Cf. the Time-lapse View slider.)

Forget-me-not: Can we ensure that our designs don't rely on users' short-term memory? Short-term memory turns out to be stunningly brief (7 items, plus/minus two, for a matter of seconds). For example, we must not require users to remember keys such as changelist numbers, which have no semantic meaning when shifting from one context to another.

Top models: Humans already have mental models for common tasks. For example, in computing, we have well-established expectations for how a copy operation should work. If a new task can be presented using a standard, well-understood model, the user is spared an unneeded learning curve. (Keeps the user documentation to a minimum, too.)

So, for me, the conversation just got richer and more interesting. We don't need to ask our users about their early childhood, but we can certainly consider the commonalities of the human brain as we strive to create a superior user experience.