Besides learning to adapt to college 10 years later, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about UX in my first semester of grad school at San Jose State in Human Factors, namely the why behind design guidelines and practices.
tl;dr: If you have the opportunity to take the Kinesiology Motor Learning class (KIN 266), TAKE IT!
Motor Learning (Kinesiology)
Never in life did I think a course in Kinesiology would be applicable to UI design.
My biggest takeaway for the semester was learning the importance of being concise – intelligence doesn’t imply complexity. It’s just the opposite. Simplicity implies intelligence. For example, I learned that it is possible to present 3 research studies (on auditory versus visual short term memory) in 2 minutes without the need to speak at the speed of light. Major lightbulb moment re being concise.
In order to gain skills, you have to train at the right level. If you’re training for long-term retention or mastery of skill, you need to practice what’s called schedule variability (random, varying tasks to keep you on your toes and out of flow). But if you’re training for acquisition (just learning something new for first time), you should practice using more blocked schedules (same task over and over again until you achieve the basics).
Practical application: Think about the different approaches you might use to train a new user. Do they have past experience with your product? Or are they completely new to the subject? Consider different types of Getting Started instructions given their backgrounds, instead of a one-size-fits-all tutorial.
If you’ve read Outliners, no surprises here. It takes a really long time to acquire expertise. But what I didn’t learn from Outliners is that you must engage in “deliberate practice,” meaning you need to constantly challenge yourself and resist the comfort of being in flow. From a cognitive processing point-of-view, you’re creating more pathways to access your knowledge. The theory I learned is that nothing is lost from long-term memory. It is just a problem of access. More pathways implies more access and faster recall.
Practical application: Figure out how to break flow to keep your skills sharp. The obvious suggestion is to try something new in your field.
There are 16 categories in which skill is acquired (Gentile’s model): 2 environment predicable possibilities (picking up cup on table, or picking up cup on a moving conveyer belt) * 2 context variability possibilities (pitches at 50mph every item, or pitches varying between 50mph and 70mph) * 2 body transport possibilities (are you walking or are you sitting at a desk) * 2 limb manipulation possibilities (does the task require you to move?)
Depending on which category your task falls in, research has shown that some methods for acquiring skills are better than others. In the context variability tasks, if the task is always going to be varying, you should always train the user using task variability. For example, once the baseball player learns to hit the ball, you have to start training him or her using different speeds. In other words, try to simulate the real world as much as possible in the training.
Practical application: If designing a mobile application, you need to think about what task classification it falls into. Is the user going to be stationary most of the time using the app (e.g. taking a picture)? Or is the user going to be in body transport (i.e. walking down the street following directions to a location)? It may seem ridiculously obvious or subtle, but environmental context really matters in the design (e.g. the size of the buttons need to be bigger on a mobile application during body transport tasks) The book Tapworth: Designing Great iPhone Apps (thanks to Jon at O’Reilly whose twitter handle i can’t find, sorry dude, for giving me a copy years ago) goes into good detail here.
Implicit versus explicit knowledge
Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that you verbalize. Implicit knowledge is unconscious knowledge. For example, have you ever tried to teach someone how to code and totally forgot to mention the variable on the left-size of the equal sign is the one being assigned, and not the one on the right? It isn’t really because you forgot. That information just got stored in your unconscious, implicit knowledge. We move info into implicit knowledge to free up cognitive resources needed to learn things like lamda expressions, anonymous methods, and Test Driven Development. Like tying your shoes, you don’t think which shoe string to pick up first. You tie your shoes in the morning as you think about your first meeting of the day.
Practical application: I forget the website, but when designing on a touch device, you want to simulate the real-world as much as possible, hence using the implicit knowledge of the user. The website used the USA Today iPad app as a great example of how to simulate a physical newspaper interaction. Being able to use the users’ implicit knowledge is why standards are important (but only when there isn’t a better alternative – see Don’t Make Me Think).
McCloy research lecture: knowledge is more than we can talk about: implicit learning in motor skill acquisition
Early in the semester, I spoke to my KIN professor about a thesis idea on why tips and tricks are so effective. (Old Tip of the Day habits die hard.) She suggested I write my review of literature paper on habit acquisition and modification.
Similar to expertise, habit is acquired slowly over time. Habits start with goals, but end up not being goal oriented. Additionally, neuroimaging scans have shown that when a person performs a habitual action (whether good habits, like tying shoes, or bad habits, like biting nails), the basal ganglia portion of the brain takes over. The basal ganglia controls automatic functions, like being able to do two things at once. It’s why you can eat lunch and listen to a friend talk. The prefrontal cortex that controls decision making is disabled for habitual tasks because you do them automatically.
Just like implicit knowledge, the knowledge to perform the habit is stored in unconscious knowledge. It is believed that the reason for performing the habit is stored unconsciously as well, which explains why habits are so hard to break. If you can’t know why you’re performing the habit, it’s a guessing game to figure out the trigger. The research I’ve read stated you must vigilantly monitor your habits. The same research said the best time to break habits is during a life-changing event, like changing jobs, moving to a new place, and so forth. Even going on vacation is enough to disrupt your habitual activities and give you an opportunity to break those unwanted habits.
Practical application: Now you know why it is so hard to keep New Year Resolutions. But also think about your users and the habits they have with your product. If you need to change the habit (e.g. stop them from pressing a button in a particular location), think about what you can change in the environment to help break the habit (e.g. maybe you could change the location of the toolbar). Just don’t swap the habitual button with a destructive-action button (e.g. delete). That would quickly break the habit, but it would be so wrong on so many levels :)
Every research paper listed on Wendy Wood’s habit research page.
I’ve never taken a psychology or philosophy course before, so this information was really fascinating.
Recency effect – information just learned is most easily accessible. For example, given a long string of numbers, you’ll learn the first few numbers (rehearsal effect) and the last few numbers the best.
Practical Application: You may have heard in public speaking training to always have a “call to action” slide at the very end to influence your audience one final time. This is because of the recency effect. What’s the one thing you want them to do? Tell them as the final slide.
Theory of forms – The study of rationalism was interesting. Go read The Allegory of the Cave. Having only taken engineering classes my entire life, it was fun to step outside of the computer world for a bit (no pun intended).
Perception – “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…” No, it doesn’t make a sound because no one is there to perceive it.
Image 1 http://truthjuice.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-cbt.jpg
Image 2 http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-2wlCMW-BlZc/T0Q87NaA7iI/AAAAAAAAHSw/eVUgTYrH5RQ/s1600/tree-falls-in-the-forest.jpg
In this course, I had to design my first physical device – a thermostat. Talk about deliberate practice! Imagine having to design physical buttons for a UI. It really gets you out of your comfort zone.
The book we used was a great primer on how to be a product/program manager. I’ll call out a couple of quotes I really enjoyed.
- Alan Cooper’s quote “How would it work if it was magic?” as stated in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum.
- When designing an electric hot water heater for tea, remember that people just want to drink a nice cup of green tea. They do not want to be a master tea brewer. This is why I love my utiliTEA electric kettle so much. I don’t care what the actual temperature of the water is. (For green tea, you want it below the boiling point.) I just want to hot water for green tea.
Thanks for reading my dissertation of a blog post. Hope you found it interesting.