• 28Feb

    Today I came across an article, Interfaces for Staying in the Flow by Benjamin B. Bederson. “Flow” is a term for a highly-desirable mental state characterized by concentration and an enhanced feeling of efficacy and control over the situation. Opposed to flow are feelings of distraction, frustration, or futility. Imagine a free-running river compared to one which is stopped up by a dam, and you’ll understand the metaphor.

    Bederson notes that software user interfaces can be designed to encourage flow, or (through bad design) discourage it. I had Second Life’s interface in mind as I was reading, noting places where its interface was good or bad.

    Bederson points to the three levels of skill acquisition outlined by J.W. Anderson in Learning and Memory. I list them here, along with my own summary/interpretation:

    1. Cognitive stage: you must consult manuals or examples to figure out how to do something.
    2. Associative stage: you know and remember how to do it, but it still requires a conscious action.
    3. Autonomous stage: you can do it easily and naturally, without conscious effort.

    The “newbie” (Stage 1) doesn’t know how to do something (in fact, may not even know that you can do it), so they have to read the F1 help, or ask someone, or just thumb through the menus hoping to find something that sounds like it does what they want to do. This stage requires a lot of feedback from the interface, because they are relying on the feedback to discover and learn everything.

    The “average user” (Stage 2) knows that there is a menu item to do the thing, and probably knows pretty much which menu it is under and where, but they still have to “think about it” enough to move the cursor up to the menu and find the menu item. This stage requires a small amount of feedback from the interface, because they still have to successfully navigate the menus.

    The “expert” (Stage 3) not only knows exactly where the menu item is and what key-combination will trigger it, but they can use the key-combo without even thinking about what it is. Their mind says, “I want to do X,” and their hands hit the right keys to do it. This stage requires minimal or no feedback from the interface, because they just do it without conscious thought.

    I think Second Life’s interface does a decent job of Stages 1 and 2, but Stage 3 does not receive as much attention as I would like. I’ve noted this before, regarding particle systems and the build interface. There are a lot of interruptions when building that could be resolved, especially only being able to toggle “Edit Linked Parts” and switch Ruler Modes via moving and clicking the mouse. (Maybe some day I’ll quit complaining and finally do something about it, eh?)

    I’ll close with this thought from Bederson:

    In general, balancing the needs of novices and experts remains a daunting problem. But, it is crucial to support experts – something that is often overlooked, or left just to shortcut key accelerators. Many computer users become experts at specific programs over time, and providing ways for them to be extremely efficient must not be ignored.

    Posted by Jacek Antonelli @ 5:36 pm

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