Driving cross country the other day I decided to use my new Garmin Colorado to test its ability to find a good route from Oxford to Cambridge. (Those of you outside the UK will be amazed that it is almost impossible to complete the 90 mile journey in less than 2½ hours). I used the Garmin’s incredibly annoying user interface to find my destination, saw it calculate the route, and set off on my journey. Less than 5 minutes later I was stuck in traffic. Why? Because I’d not thought where I was going and blindly followed the G** D*** Garmin along a route I would normally always have avoided, just minutes from my home.
I don’t know where I heard the phrase “Google Stupid” (possibly an article by Rita Carter in The Author Spring 2009) first, but it is so apposite. Why bother to try to remember something, follow a logic train of thought, or actually just figure it out, when you’ve got Google? We type in our search and either find the answer immediately or, with the attention span of a 3 year old, are distracted by something completely different in the first 10 results returned.
Psychologists have known for a long time that the act of recalling information is part of the process of embedding that information more deeply into our memories. So what happens if we don’t have to force that recall? What if we can just Google it rather than remember it?
If you have to find your way around a location without a Sat Nav, you pay attention to the names of places and roads, look for landmarks, be aware of your direction of travel, and a range of other environmental clues. Using all this information we (ok there is some research to suggest we don’t all do this) build up a mental model of the location and how the various routes interact. Now we have a mental resource which we can use to understand where new places are, who lives close to whom, and most importantly where the nearest pub is. Yes, I can use Google Maps on my phone, but then I’ll be more stupid because I will not have bothered to construct this mental model.
I suspect there is an analogous process with any complex problem we are trying to solve. We mess around with the parameters, go up blind alleys, around in circles, feel our way around this new landscape. Pretty quickly we start to build up an intuitive understanding of how things work and get much better at finding solutions. My question is: does the way we design our products enhance or hinder this process?
Examples that hinder the process include:
- Software “wizards” that take you by the nose through the process don’t appear to help much. I just keep pressing “Next>” in the hope of getting a result (yes, I know; pretty stupid). It is an almost entirely passive process.
- Pages of options that I don’t understand, particularly when I’m in the early stages of discovery. I need to experiment with the parameters interactively one at a time, not make a whole heap of bogus decisions, and then see a result I don’t understand.
- Guessing or inferring what a user wants is particularly problematic because the things that are controlling the algorithm’s behaviour are completely obscured from the user. Anyway, maybe I want something the designer never thought of.
I don’t have an immediate solution; perhaps there isn’t one. What I do strongly believe is that if we want the experience of using our products to be a pleasant and enriching one, then we need to figure out ways of using smart software to help smart users be even smarter. Maybe that Sat Nav should have suggested “start by heading towards Bicester and let me know if you need more help”.