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    Presumed Intelligence


    I read an interesting post the other day about how the new generation of kids will never know what a pixel is and cannot imagine a life without touch screens.  I’m sure many of us see it every day – children but a few years old (or less) interacting with tablets such as the iPad or eReaders like the a Nook or Kindle.  As I thought about these interactions I also was reflecting on a conversation I had with a professor of user design that was telling me about how unintuitive these actions actually are.  Nobody sits in front of something and naturally thinks “if I could just pinch to zoom…”  This is a learned behavior, but nearly all touchscreen devices, that contain something which you would want to zoom in on, contain that feature.  How is one to know?

    As my mind wandered along this thought path I realized I had nearly visited this topic previously on this blog but never got around to publishing the entry.  The post is still a draft but was written shortly after I got my first iPod Touch.  I was likely one of the few people who actually went to the website where the PDF of the manual existed and read through it.  There are all sorts of things in there that I bet the average user doesn’t know.  Things as simple as “press space twice to auto-punctuate with a period.”  This may or may not be common knowledge now – that’s not for me to judge – but at the time I can remember many proud iPhone / iPod Touch users who had no idea this feature existed.

    I then also though about some recent interactions I had with other applications on my Incredible 2.  You wouldn’t believe some of the undocumented (or perhaps they are and I just don’t take the time to find them) features these apps have.  I find myself trying to guess what I can click on the screen.  What happens if I swipe left, right, up, or down?  Will the same thing happen on each screen of the app?  And what about the long press?  There are some features that I’m sure people have no idea exist because they’ve never tried the long press.  And why would you?  Isn’t the long press something we’re supposed to make fun of old people for? Like when they’re trying to type or click with a mouse and completely fail because they can’t get their finger off the key/button quickly enough?

    But more and more these features are being built into new devices.  Integrated as part of the experience and this, I realized, is why the stereotypical “old person” can’t keep up with technology.  It is not that they cannot, but if they don’t keep making all of the small steps as technology progresses, when they finally try it is simply unintuitive because the technology relies on the user already having a level of presumed intelligence about how it “should work.”

    The new devices and interfaces are built with a level of presumed intelligence.  It is presumed you know the basics of interacting with a touch screen.  It is presumed that you can go Google/Bing for help or additional instructions.  Software that used to come with thick instruction manuals now come with a flimsy booklet, if you’re buying a physical product at all.  The best you can hope for is a Quick Start Guide in most products.  After that is it just presumed you can go and figure out how to get the rest of the info.  Sure, there’s a website listed but it is not as if you go to the website and it will only display the things you are looking for.

    Certainly this is not a new phenomenon.  Each version of technology can and should build upon the past OR replace it altogether with something better.  But, even full replacements will lean on still other presumed intelligences.  Now, a great designer will tell you that things need to be stupidly simple – so simple a child could do it.  The problem is, of course, that the children can do it.  It’s the adults that have problems.  And while one can lower the level of presumed intelligence that a product relies on, we must also continue to look forward and realize sometimes – for those that don’t put in the time and effort to keep up – technology will pass you by.

    I intend to not let that happen.

    Do you notice presumed intelligence in your daily life?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    One response to “Presumed Intelligence”

    1. fantasy7 says:

      My boss was lamenting this very thing the other day, how absolutely unintuitive so many things were on the iPad. Want to see the “taskbar” to see what other apps are running? Stick four fingers on the screen and bring them together. He’s like — who would think to do this?? Oh, but there is an easier way — push and hold the home key. (how would one think to do this??). Quickly push the home button and power button to capture a screen shot to the photo gallery — ??

      I think there is something to be said for the role of curiosity in figuring out some of these things as well. My boss jokes that the best strategy when you’re trying to figure something out on an iPad is to hand it to the youngest person in the room, whether that person is 25 or 2. I can’t tell you how many times people have handed me an iPad asking me how to get back to their email inbox after they’ve opened an attachment. They hit the home button and then re-launch the mail app and it brings up the recently opened attachment, rather than the email! They look all around the screen, swipe up and down and scroll left and right and cannot figure out how to return to the inbox. The solution? Tap the screen to bring up the context menus.

      A child encounters problems he or she doesn’t know the answer to all the time, and they have to rely on their ability to try strategy after strategy to solve all life’s puzzles. So while I think the iterative nature of how adults learn new skills is extremely reliant on this “presume intelligence,” a child’s case might be a bit different.

      I think user interfaces have come a long way, and the fact that you don’t need a plow through a giant manual to access the basic functions of the iPad is definitely a good thing. I think the flaw in Apple’s marketing is trying to bill every feature of the device as “intuitive” — this intuitive quality is only going to make itself apparent if you have an unrelenting, unquenchable curiosity and are constantly trying bizarre solutions to problems you didn’t even know existed — aaaand ta da! A screenshot! Sounds exhausting to me…

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