The sum of a user’s knowledge is the current knowledge point
By Wendy Eichenbaum
Apple released the original iPod in 2001. The first time I used it, the iPod seemed pretty simple. I could load and play my music. But when I was done, I could not figure out how to turn the iPod off. There was no Off button. Weren’t Apple products supposed to be so simple that I didn’t need a manual? But I pulled out the manual to learn that I had to press and hold the Play button to turn off the iPod. Press Play to turn off? Hmmm…that didn’t seem intuitive.
My mental model was based on a traditional stereo system, which included an Off button. The sum of a user’s knowledge is the current knowledge point. The amount of knowledge a user needs to complete a task is the target knowledge point. When there is a gap between the two points, an interface does not seem intuitive to a user. There was a huge gap for me the first time I used an iPod. That gap has narrowed over time as I learn the “Apple way” of using hardware.
Any of this feel familiar? Perhaps you’ve felt frustrated if you’re used to an iPhone and then try an Android phone. Or you rent a car that has a push button start when you’re used to a key. Gaps happen for two reasons: a user has no experience with a task; or the user has an alternate experience so that the steps to complete the same task are different.
There are two ways to address the gap. You can revise the process so users need less “new” knowledge to complete the task. Or you can train the users. There is no ideal way, and most intuitive design solutions are a combination of both.
Designers will leverage standard mental models and reduce the number of steps to complete a complex task. But sometimes the users should learn a new way, if that way is more efficient. My car has a push button to start. The sales person had to demonstrate how to start the car once, but I don’t need the rental agent to explain this process every time I rent a new car. And now I don’t have to search for the key in my purse. I just press Start.
The equivalent in a software interface could be a tutorial screen that pops up the first time you use a new version of the software. Or the manufacturer could place a sticker on the hardware.
When designing a product, it’s crucial to understand the current knowledge point of your target audience. You can do this by running contextual inquiries, usability tests, and competitive analyses. Then you can map their knowledge to the task flow to determine where users may encounter gaps. After that, the design team can brainstorm solutions to revise the task flow and insert learning aids.
Many experiences we consider intuitive are actually tasks that leverage our learning from long ago. When a process is counter to our learning, the process seems backwards or confusing. So when designing a product, it’s critical that you mind the gap between your customers’ current knowledge point, and what you will expect them to do to complete tasks. Then your customers will feel that your product is natural and easy to use.
About the Author
Wendy Eichenbaum has been a UX professional since the early-1990’s. She began her career as a technical writer. She then earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, studying both writing and UI design. Over the years, she has worked across verticals, from start-ups to multi-national firms, in many areas of UX including research & strategy, Information Architecture, usability testing, and focus groups. She started her own UX consulting firm in 2008, Ucentric Design. And she is an adjunct professor at Cal State University, Fullerton. There she teaches a class that she created, User-Centered Design for Web and Mobile Interfaces.