On walkabout in life and technology

Childlike Wonder

Ever watch a child with an iPad? They seem to immediately get it, they prod and tap and swipe and rotate and in no time at all seem comfortable with it.

Ever watch an adult with an iPad? They hold it, and stare at it, and, well, stare some more, and maybe wave a finger near it, but hesitate to touch. And after all that staring and hesitating, they remain uncomfortable with it.

What is going on?

The adult is first attempting to map the item to their own mind models. If the item fits, for example, the new toaster works kinda like the old toaster, they are immediately comfortable with it (albeit they will not use any of the new toaster features). If the item does not fit a known mind model, most adults get stuck in a loop. Its kinda like a computer, but kinda like a phone, but kinda like a book, but kinda like a computer, which model to use … and the brain enters an infinite loop. After being shown a few things, the adult takes this training, merges it with existing mind models, and uses only the features they were shown. They ever even look at the new toaster features, they never even look at all the other iPad features.

Children, on the other hand, start with no preconceived mind models. Each thing they encounter is a new thing which requires a new mind model. The new toaster has knobs that need to be figured out, oh, this one makes the pop higher, this one makes the toast darker, this one burns in a Hello Kitty face. The child is building a mind model for this device. The iPad contains a plethora of things to build a mind model on, and children gleefully spend hours prodding each button, swiping each screen, and quickly building a new mind model for the device.

At some stage in our lives, we stop having this sense of childlike wonder and start trying to map the world to the mind models we already have. Some call it maturity, I call it sad.

So how does this apply to computer software design and my areas of expertise?

Our users are not children. One cannot deliver unto them a product and expect them to use their childlike wonder to explore the application and build the right mind model for it, no matter how intuitive we think it is. One cannot even give them a manual to explain the product, because they will not understand the text or have time to read it.

Instead, software designers have two choices here. The first is to make the product fit a common mind model (all spreadsheets and mail clients look the same), the second is to provide demos and training.

In the first case, your application needs to look like, work like, and use the same terms as the user’s mind model. Which means knowing what that that is, and conforming to it. It applies design and functionality constraints on the product, and it makes it harder to innovate. Ever wondered why all graphics manipulation apps look like MacPaint (yes even Photoshop?), because they target the same mind model. Or all spreadsheets still look and work like VisiCalc, same reason.

In the second case, where you create something new that requires a new mind model, you know that your users are going to stare at the product, not use it and complain that the old way was better. Get off my lawn and all that. The very best training is hands on, give them tasks, walk them through it the first few times, and wait for the next time when they proudly announce that they know what to do. It is at this stage that you know they have built a mind model, albeit a very weird one. Create tools to then help them learn new features. Screencasts are great for this, and easy to create. And before you know it, you’re back on the lawn, the new way is the better way. It just takes a lot of time and patience.

So next time you are ready to release a feature or a product, put it in front of a few children and watch where they go first. Ask them what they see, why they prodded that first and what have learned by playing with it. Then do the same with adults, but this time, lead them where the children went. It may not bring back a sense of childlike wonder to the adult, but it will help then learn build a mind model to use the product sooner.

But it is in yourself that you can make the change. Next time you are faced with an unfamiliar thing, don’t try to map it an existing model, try to find your sense of childlike wonder, play with the thing, poke it, prod it, rotate it, open it, try to figure it out and see what happens. You will have fun, and you will build a whole new mind model.