Reading about the hi-res user experience reminded me about some interesting research I read about in “Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain” (Caine & Caine). I can’t find the exact reference, but they discussed a study where people watched a scene in a move of people doing recreational drugs. When asked to recall details from the scene afterwards, people who had more drug experience were able to recall the precise drug paraphernalia; whereas people without that experience had trouble remembering the details of the scene.
In related reading today, Sylvie Noël notes an article Are expert users always better searchers?: “Results from an experiment revealed that expert users outperformed novice users in IR [information retrieval] when the elements of a system interface are organized semantically, but not when organized randomly.” The article looks interesting but I can’t quite justify purchasing it at (cough) $28.
Evidence that relates experience to effective recall has been seen in multiple studies. Master chess player deGroot studied grandmaster chess players and concluded that they had superior memory for chess pieces on a chess board. Later research showed that master chess players had greater memory than novices for well-known chess patterns, as well as random positions on a chess board.
“Similar differences were found by Berliner ( Brandt, 1986) in a study comparing expert teachers to novice teachers. Thus, when briefly shown a photograph of a classroom and asked to describe what is happening, expert teachers frequently noticed two children in the back of the room who were not attending to the teacher, whereas novices rarely noticed such patterns and focused instead on details of physical setting, clothing, and other less relevant characteristics.” (Dimensions of Thinking and Cognitive Instruction by Lorna Idol, Beau Fly Jones; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990)
So, what does this have to do with human interface design?
Take advantage of domain expertise
If you are creating software for a specific group of people who have specific knowledge, use key words, icons, or layout that is familar from that domain. The web is a new medium, but most web sites or web applications are associated with off-line experiences. It can be effective to use design elements from offline counterparts.
Make it fun and interesting for people to become experts
Software can be itself a destination. There is value in learning a tool well. I fondly remember the first time I saw Joe Sparks use a 3D modeling tool (sorry I can’t remember what it was), and it was like watching a musician play an instrument. Effectiveness with a tool can lead to superior creative performance. Make sure that is true with the tools you create and entice the people who use them to become experts.
Help is for experts [update]
“in usability tests we see it again and again: novices and intermediates click around and experiment, experts try to reason things out and look them up in help…experts are the people most likely to know the ‘magic’ words to bring up what they’re looking for.” (Jensen Harris via guuui) Jensen notes: “if you’re authoring your help system for newcomers, you might be designing for the wrong kind of person.” Of couse, you should do your own usability tests — what’s true for MS Office may or may not be true for your software. Personally, I like to focus on his first point about novices learning through exploration. Think about how to make your software resillient and productive when poked at.