Thursday, September 19, 2013

The most productive UIs have steep learning curves

A friend posted on Facebook this video of a baby using an iphone with the tag "If there was ever any doubt that the iPhone interface is so intuitive that a baby could use it, here's proof."

I replied "The problem is the UI doesn't mature beyond that age group", to which she replied "Why should it?"

The answer is, because babies using iPhones to play music and look at pictures doesn't imply that UX can lead to super productive tools for more demanding needs that grownups have.

Look at it this way: we have computers in our pocket that are more powerful than probably half of the computers I've used in my lifetime. Hampering their potential in the name of the initial learning curve is a waste. Apple won't allow things like widgets, or replacement launchers, or any of the UI hacks I've come to rely on for Android. And that's just scratching the surface of what you should be able to do in order to make productive UIs for people.

Furthermore, on either platform, we spend WAY too much time on design and not enough on functionality. The scroll bounces when it gets to the bottom? The little thing flies into the icon? OMGWTFBBQ. Somehow, we've become a development culture obsessed with "delighting" instead of providing them with awesome things they couldn't do before. [Sub-topic: have we run out of things we couldn't do before?]

When I worked in 3D, the most productive tools I ever used -- before or since -- had really daunting learning curves.

The first I used was Softimage Creative Environment, circa 1993. Here's a screenshot:

This was a ridiculously productive 3D environment -- best I ever used -- and yet had a horrific learning curve. And this is the 3.0 version (1995-ish). The 2.x version I learned on was even less polished.

And if you look at what Softimage did with XSI, where it started to get 3DSMax-like, I felt like I ended up hunting around more than being productive. The change was kind of like when Microsoft moved to the Ribbon.

Another was Discreet Logic's Flame software. Doesn't this look intuitive?!

When I started learning Flame in 1999 or 2000, I would come home every day just drained. And yet, over time, it became one of the fastest, most fluid pieces of software I've ever used and I feel like I did great work with it.

Back to iPhone Baby. Trading learning curve for functionality might be more important for consumer-level products. I mean... there are a lot of those out there, right? Google Docs, for example.

But can you imagine Photoshop shipping with the iPhone mentality towards UIs? That's absurd. Even Lightroom already pisses me off because it tries so hard to be intuitive than useful.

What's my point? 

 - I think we put too much emphasis on ease and not enough on productivity when it comes to UIs for complicated tools in recent times. Maya is a good example of this (Lightroom too, as mentioned). And these fancy UIs take a lot of time to develop. Development time that could be spent on something else.

 - Babies playing with phones is no evidence that the device is at all better / more useful / more productive than UIs that babies can't use. So I don't get why it's important other than as marketing for Apple / Google / Samsung.


Denise Howard said...

It depends on how you define "productivity".

A smart phone such as the iPhone isn't intended or expected to be able to run something as complex as Maya or an IDE like Xcode. That's what laptop and desktop computers are for, so you can also hook up a keyboard, a trackpad and an extra monitor and go to town with keyboard shortcuts, double- and triple-clicks, key modifiers, MIDI interfaces, etc.

Smart phones aren't for any of that. They're for simple everyday activities like making phone calls, texting friends, checking stock prices, taking photos, posting the photos to social media, playing simple games. A smart phone can be anti-productive if it's too hard or too obscure to make it do what you want. This is the problem Apple has solved, for the general population.

Blogger Sucks said...

My Grandmother was a career secretary. In the 90s they replaced her electronic typewriter, which could do mail merge stuff, with a Mac. She was furious because they did not supply a user manual. To her, it wasn't about delight or intuition: she wanted to RTFM so she could Get It Done. She says she hasn't felt right about technology since, because while the technology she made her career with came with thick reference manual ready to explain to her the minutia of what she needed to know, no software ever comes with instructions any more; you have to just "figure it out" on your own . . .