Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blurred Boundaries

According to ABC News Australia, two girls, 10 and 12 years old, got lost in a storm drain and were rescued after they updated their status on their Facebook page instead of using their cell phone to simply call for help. The story quotes Glenn Benham of the Metropolitan Fire Service in Adelaide as saying, "If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000, so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway."

I think there's an interesting point to be made here about interaction design and the mental models of naive users. Consider times when you may have helped a naive user with their computer, and found that they didn't understand such basics as the distinction between the operating system and applications, and between applications and what they do. Email is email, internet is internet. You click on the envelope icon for email and you click on the big blue "e" for internet. More advanced users (whose friends or family have installed Firefox on their machines) may talk about starting Google (since that's the default Firefox home page). Talking to them about their email application or internet client is hopeless because they don't understand the concept. This may have made it difficult to communicate the concepts required to resolve whatever problem they were having.

The point for design is that designers are always the world's leading expert in their product, and they often assume that their users will share their mental models. So their interaction and interface designs often presume some basic understanding of an underlying framework: client/server architecture, application-specific preferences, the need for application updates, file formats, even the basic notion of files and operating system services, all of these may be presumed by the designer and escape the user. The consequence is products that are almost unusable by naive users. Typically, such users will learn a very limited path through the interaction logic to perform a very specific task, and become confused if they deviate from that path.

Two trends are conspiring to make this problem worse in the future, as demonstrated by the two girls lost in the storm drain. Technology is becoming more broadly used by less expert users, and the functional boundaries between applications are becoming more blurred as more and more of them add social networking features. It used to be that calling 911 (or 000 in Australia) was the way you called for help and email was how you kept up with friends. Now, whether you're lost in a storm drain or want to see what your friend is doing, you can call them, email them, Twitter it, update your Facebook page, IM it, blog it, ....

The more functional overlap there is between applications, the more likely it is that naive users will learn, and stick with, one preferred way of accomplishing a task, however inappropriate that may be for the situation at hand. I'm not suggesting that designers should limit application functionality to prevent over-burdening users with choices, but rather that they simply recognize that naive users often don't recognize the basic framework and context of systems and applications that designers take for granted.

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