The Ape and the Donut Eater

To (very) long-term readers, this might look familiar. It’s from 2 and a half years ago, originally. It had 1 non-spam comment and even I had forgotten I’d written it… I found it by accident looking for another article that went missing. (Mephisto’s design makes it very easy to delete articles rather than deleting their comments. Whoops.) I thought it was worth reposting.

N.B.: Through the magic of time, said “boyfriend” referenced in text has a different (less friendly) moniker now.

I also recently sat in on a 400-level human-computer interaction (HCI) class at the local university here. While I found that I already had a good familiarity with what was being taught, thanks to my reading, it was nevertheless stimulating to hear and see the reactions of students to these ideas, which were new to them, and which I had already accepted as truth.

So with these ideas percolating through my brain, I’ve gained a constant awareness, mindfulness of these effects that I didn’t really have before. I see examples everywhere.

Copyright QFamily. Creative Commons-licensed. Some rights reserved.

Chocolate or rainbow jimmies?

When you think about it, ordering doughnuts is a technique we all know, and if you didn’t know, it might be kind of difficult to start. You have to know that doughnuts are generally sold in dozens and half-dozens (otherwise, you pay out the nose), and that when you say “I’d like a dozen doughnuts, please,” the person working behind the counter will grab a box, some tissues, and then stand there, waiting for your instructions.

“Two powdered, four glazed, two bavarian creme, and two marbled, please.” Oops, that was only ten. “Also, two chocolate glazed.”

We need to learn how to suck on baby bottles, tie our shoes (a much more complex movement than you’d think), how to avoid burning ourselves on hot things, how to put on shirts, how to button buttons and snap snaps, how to use velcro, how to adjust backpack straps, how to load a dishwasher, how to use a microwave, how to operate a vacuum, how to negotiate the many, many kinds of doorknobs and locks we encounter, how to drive a variety of vehicles, how to write checks and pay our taxes and play guitar (badly) or piano (well), how to use pushpins, how to clean, how to sing and hit the proper notes, how to impress our friends’ parents.

Copyright margolove. Creative Commons-licensed. Some rights reserved.

Sometimes the simplest things require more thought than we remember, and take more ingenuity and flexibility than we usually give ourselves credit for. Take locks and doors as one example. With my car, I usually lock it by smashing the “L” half of a rocker button on the driver’s side door, or tapping the lock button on the key fob while I walk away. But in my boyfriend’s car I must turn the key in the outside lock to the right—there’s no inside button to lock the car, and no keyless entry. In my old car, turning the key to the right would unlock it; on the door to my house, I turn the key in the deadbolt lock to the right, and the doorknob to the left. At my boyfriend’s apartment, I have to use a key card twice on two doors and then for his door, I have to turn the key upwards more than any other direction. At his parents’ place, one set of doors (of a total of five doors or double doors to the outside) locks only when you pull up on the long, graceful handle. At my father’s, his main door has only a simple brass knob, but set far below the normal height.

In Soviet Russia, tools use you

A single technology—a door—can be operated in many ways; people with arthritis or carpal tunnel often get rubber rings to put over round door knobs to help them grip with less pain; people with malformed or missing hands often require lever-based doorknobs instead; cats and dogs (and even small children!) can learn to operate doorknobs to get access to what they desire. Some door handles you twist—some you pull, or push on. Some have a button you depress to get what you want, others aren’t knobs or handles at all, but require you to insert a finger or two into a depression and pull on the door itself. For some doors, you have to push the door itself and go around in a circle—and if you slow down, you’ll get smacked by the rest of the door coming up behind. Some doors are big enough to walk through, others cover cabinets and little storage compartments. We still have this concept of “door,” but it encompasses such a crazy variety that it’s hard to believe we can still sit here and use the word “door” generically and be understood, and be sane.

Copyright iwouldstay. Creative Commons-licensed. Some rights reserved.

Even the laziest humans…

The fact of the matter is, we’re always learning. We learn a lot about an awful lot of things we’d probably label “inane” or “stupid,” if we thought about them. These techniques are what get us through the day, not the technology. If a technique for handling various kinds of door knobs replaces the technique for tracking an animal through the woods, the fact still remains that we are technique- rather than technology-based creatures. While everything around us is really technology, it is the techniques that define their importance in our lives.

But we seem to constantly forget this fact, or never think about it in the first place; we equate progress with technology, and technology with tools. We don’t often stop to think about how strange it is that we are nearly naked, upright apes who crafted almost unfathomably complex machines to convey us around at ridiculous speeds.

We don’t often ponder the unique peculiarity of having doorknobs. The ultimate goal of user interface design is to create something that can also be so easily forgotten. Human interaction with technology has patterns, and interface designers need to expose and exploit those patterns. It’s not so much a question of design, but of discovering what the modern human brain expects, and delivering it.

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  1. Tobie Langel says:

    It’s interesting that the two examples you give – doorknobs and donuts – are probably some of the things that I found most intriguing when I moved to North America two years ago.

    Doorknobs – in my part of europe, at least, – are relatively standardized, and are in now way comparable to North American ones.

    Obviously, ordering donuts (and more generally, fast-food) wasn’t part of my culture, so that’s typically a technique I wasn’t familiar with when moving in.

    Does that make me more stupid than the average north-american? I wouldn’t think so. But it did make me feel that way. (Taking two minutes to figure out how to unlock your front door, or asking the person behind the counter to repeat his question five times, only to hear names of products that don’t mean a thing to you, does make you feel rather inapt, trust me!)

    The usual, human behavior in that case is to avoid the situation as much as possible.

    When you’re moving to a new country, that’s usually not an easy thing to do, so you do end up learning these new techniques. However, when you’re trying out a new application, switching to another one that doesn’t make you feel as stupid is an easy – and natural – thing to do.

    When we do interface designs, these are things we should consider. What the modern brain expects depends on a lot of factors. Culture is clearly one of them, but there are others (age, education, etc.). It’s usually impossible to get them all right, and that’s ok, because we’re used to being confronted to new techniques and having to master them.

    The key however is to avoid making people feel stupid. Because whenever they have a choice to go elsewhere, that’s exactly when they’ll decide to do so.

  2. Justin Ko says:

    God that donut looks good.

  3. For interaction design I wonder if things can’t be split into two broad categories. I don’t really know how to label them but let’s try…

    <ol> <li>Has cultural support desk</li> <li>Has no cultural support desk</li> </ol>

    The donut shop example is a good one.

    In North America there is a culture of how to order at a donut shop. You can watch the other people placing their orders and at least attempt to infer what it is you’re supposed to be doing. That’s a case of there being a culture there to support the new "user".

    Suppose that there was no culture of ordering at a donut shop. Then you couldn’t even watch the actions of other customers because they don’t know what to do either. There’s no cultural support desk.

    Software, particularly <i>really new</i> software has this problem in spades.

    While designing the interface for <a href="">LiquidPlanner </a> (the product I’m currently working on) we ran into this problem. We needed to show uncertainty in the time it takes to complete a task. Like most problems we could break it down and most of the pieces had parallels that folks would just "get" (i.e. there is cultural support for them). But there wasn’t anything out there doing this, so there isn’t "some guy down the hall" who knows what the do-dads on the chart mean and can explain it to you when you get confused.

    This is the point where I think <b>real</b> interaction designers shine. The good ones out there are worth their weight in proverbial gold because they make the user feel smart with designs that play <i>to</i> your preconceptions rather than fighting against them.

    They are also good at dropping little nuggets of information along the way without getting all "RTFM" on you.

    Speaking of which… have you noticed that when posting comments on blogs (or forums or…) that folks seldom tell you which markup language to use? Is HTML allowed? Which tags? RedCloth? LefthandedReversePolishPolyMarkDown?

    I run into this all the time when commenting (like now). A simple link to a reference and a preview would make me so much more likely to comment since I’d worry less about looking stupid (I still may sound stupid however).

  4. Amy says:

    Tobie, nice coincidence! I wrote this before I had traveled further than Toronto/Vancouver… and of course now I’ve been off the continent quite a bit more.

    I’ll admit that I didn’t overtly notice the lack of donut shops in my European travels (not being something I’m inclined to miss), however I did notice the doorknob, toilet flusher, and window differences. Not to mention signage (emergency exit, fire extenguisher, etc.).

    Nothing’s quite as amusing as playing "how do I flush the toilet?!" in a foreign country. 🙂

    I also was severely confused, at first, by the dual mode operation of the windows in Vienna (and later, the giant ones that doubled as doors in Berlin).

    We take so much knowledge for granted…

  5. Columbia says:

    I saw these tablets long time ago!

  6. Chardonnay says:

    Where is something new?

  7. Valley says:

    Where is something new?

  8. RaZella says:

    This if my first time here, referred by a friend. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the reading, and it does make one sit back and think about the techniques we have learned and take for granted. It reminded me of trying to teach my son how to tie his shoes. I thought he had learned. However careful inspection proved he would get someone else to do it once, and then just slide his feet in and out. It was funny, because finally after several failed attempts I asked him to tell me how I could make it easier. He says, "Stop telling me the same thing over and over, I heard you, I don’t get it".

    I also know what Tobie means too. I’m not from another country, however, I grew up in a town that had no doughnut shops. Occassionally we went to Krispy Kreme, however we always just got the dozen plain ones that are usually sold as fund raisers. Maine however has Dunkin Donuts everywhere! I don’t have the technique of walking in and ordering a dozen different doughnuts that arn’t all the same. Not quite the same, however, it’s very true that when one doesn’t know a learned technique that it seems everyone else in the surrounding environment does know, you crave to just avoid the situation and feeling of being inapt. Infact, I still usually go with just a mean, having no idea the full variety of stuff DD has to offer. Maybe I’ll be brave and go take up a good 10 minutes in the ordering line learning something new.

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