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.

“the web is making us more literate – better readers, better writers” writes Elise Bauer (Not Always On). I agree wholeheartedly. I have found that keeping a blog has made me a better writer. I still find it challenging sometimes to publish even one or two paragraphs, as evidenced by the vast number of “draft” entries lurking in my movable type personal publishing system. Nevertheless, I have written dozens of blog entries while I struggle over the draft of a single full-length article that I’ve been working on for about nine-months. Without the practice of regular blogging, it would probably take even longer.

Bauer also writes about how the web makes us more literate by providing easy access to definitions of words, as well as pronunciation. I discovered the same thing recently when I was preparing to talk to a group of first graders about the exploration of Titam. I kept reading about Huygens probe which landed on Titan, named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. I know a Dutch phrase or two but had no idea how to pronounce this name. The internet to the rescue! A kindly soul had wondered the same thing and after doing some research, he posted his findings. I am consistently delighted with how I can indulge my idle curiosity, as well as semi-serious scientific inquiry, with a quick search of the web.

“Brains love play. Find a way to bring more play (or at least a sense of playfulness) into someone’s life, and you might just end up with a fan. (…) Brains evolved to play, and apparently the bigger the brain, the more likely it is to play. Play turns the brain on.” Creating Passionate Users (via InfoDesign) suggests a number of ways to make work more playful: games, festivities, and diversions.

I keep thinking that there are more ways we can take a playful approach to work. That we do, in fact, learn better and are more productive when we are having fun.

“It’s when we do this foolish, time-consuming, romantic, quixotic, childlike thing called play that we are most practical, most useful, and most firmly grounded in reality, because the world itself is the most unlikely of places, and it works in the oddest of ways, and we won’t make any sense of it by doing what everybody else has done before us. It’s when we fool about with the stuff the world is made of that we make the most valuable discoveries, we create the most lasting beauty, we discover the most profound truths. The youngest children can do it, and the greatest artists, the greatest scientists do it all the time.”
Common sense has much to learn from moonshine: less grammar, more play

The above is quoted from an article about teaching children to write. I found it relevant to my own pursuits of teaching science and writing software. User interface design is education. The study of chemistry can be boring, but mixing baking soda and vinegar is inherently fun, especially the first time you do it. I think software can be fun too, even if there are no games, puzzles or cartoon characters.

“True education flowers at the point when delight falls in love with responsibility.”