About intuitive tools…

Image: pixabay.com; public domain

The Open Networked Learning course ONL191 started three weeks ago, and as in every course, there is more to learning just for everyone. On the tools side, a lot has happened this time. The learning environment includes a new website, new group rooms for exchange, file storage and management and a messaging system. Each new structure takes getting used to and is not accessible at first glance or even – as often required – intuitively and immediately usable – without thinking, so to speak. This emerged also in one of our group discussions, and I know it from many many other discussions I had with colleagues. Recently my team colleague sent me a link with an interesting blog post by Dave O White “Against intuitive technology”, and it got me thinking. How can software applications, technology be intuitive?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, intuitive means “based on feelings rather than facts or proof” or “able to know or understand something because of feelings rather than facts or proof”. Who can understand a software application based on feeling? Of course there is emotional intelligence, an apparent contradiction, but understanding a technical, digital tool with feeling? How is this even possible?
Emotions are physical phenomena. You react physically, for example, when an extraordinary event triggers a certain feeling in you. For example, if you have passed a test, then we feel joy (=feeling) of the body reacts with laughter (emotion). When someone you love dies, sadness and despair sometimes trigger the physical movement of “crying”. Emotional intelligence means that these physical reactions can be perceived and interpreted correctly, that empathy is possible. Here very fine emotions are already perceptible. The better one succeeds in perceiving fine emotional vibrations in interpersonal relationships and in one’s own body, the more pronounced is the emotional intelligence.

But how is something technical, which unites structures, language, numbers, symbols, icons, at all intuitive, thus emotionally perceptible? These applications are constructs, nothing grown. Someone has created the structure and now you stand there and do what someone has thought up. Someone has invented how a user of this application navigates through the content levels in order to get to the desired position. There is nothing emotional per se, except perhaps enthusiasm about a successful interface or anger about unclear labelling. But in itself there is nothing emotional in it that can be perceived with feeling, i.e. that can be operated “intuitively”.

Isn’t this similar to language? As linguists have known since De Saussure, the meaning of words is completely arbitrary. The word house with its spelling h-o-u-s-e in no way refers to the material object “house”. Nothing in the word itself tells us “intuitively” that it must be a house. It could just as well be called Kaus. Or flax. Or something else. Every word in every language is composed of meaningful elements, and there is consensus about what the word means. Consensus has not grown emotionally, nor has it grown biologically. So a word is a code for an object, a fact, a phenomenon or something that people talk about. Language has nothing intuitive about it. No feeling can decipher what a word means. You have to learn it. The more languages you speak, the more analytically you can decipher meaning if you recognize certain parts of a word. But here, too, you have to become aware of the specific consensus in the language in question in order to understand the word in context. Language, with its structures – semantic, syntactic, grammatical, etc. – is analytical. Language can indeed trigger feelings, yes, if the author succeeds in doing so. Someone can speak emotionally or express emotions through language, yes. But language itself is not emotional and cannot be understood intuitively. Language is a code that allows us to describe the world. You have to learn this code. As with language, in my opinion it is also about technology and digital tools that serve a certain purpose, e.g. communication or the transfer of money. They are media. Here, too, you have to analyze connections in order to understand how they work.

An icon as an image represents a process. Which “image” symbolizes which process is based on consensus, as is language. Whoever grew up in the eighties still knows what a floppy disk is, and it is perfectly clear to them what the icon symbolizes, namely “store”. Children today, on the other hand, must learn what the “floppy disk” icon means. It must seem completely arbitrary to them. Many of them don’t ask why the process of “saving” is represented by this strange angular thing. You may not even know that there is a historical reason for this, or that the people who have loaded the icon with this meaning have at the same time ensured that the following is (still) true today: [disk] = save.
Icons such as floppy disks, the small house for “home” (=start page of a website) or the letter icon for “email” are today central elements of the interface design of software applications and have nothing intuitive or emotionally perceptible about them. Rather, they are learned things:

What many call intuition in their lives is almost always something that has been learnt. Beyond basic responses, such as a baby throwing its arms out (…), much of what we think of as intuition is simply stuff-we-have-learned-and-then-forgotten-we-learned.*

Dave O. White: Against intuitive technology, 2015.

So this is what I say to the members of my pbl group when they say that they don’t know: You can’t. You can’t just know. You have to learn, as we all do! And that’s OK!

#intuitive #tools #design #languageasacode #onl191

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