Spectra of learnability

They gave us Don­ald Nor­man’s The Design of Every­day Things1 to read in inter­ac­tion design school. I remem­ber read­ing it and—being young an cocky—finding it all very com­mon sense and “Why do they ask us to read this stuff?” And so on.2

I am reread­ing it now, in the hopes of sharp­en­ing my argu­ment for play­ful user experiences. 

(There are a lot of things I want to blog about actu­al­ly, such as how Hill and Webb’s adap­tive design reminds me of Salen & Zim­mer­man’s trans­for­ma­tive play, why Cook rejects MDA while Saf­fer embraces it and more.)

Any­way, my new copy of DOET has a nice intro­duc­tion by Nor­man in which he sum­ma­rizes a few core con­cepts form the book. On page xi—writing on con­cep­tu­al models—he writes: 

[G]ood design is … an act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the design­er and the user, … all the com­mu­ni­ca­tion has to come about by the appear­ance of the device itself.” 

In oth­er words, if you can’t fig­ure “it” out by just look­ing at it, it’s not well designed. Where “fig­ure it out” basi­cal­ly means under­stand how to oper­ate “it” suc­cess­ful­ly. Of course this is an impor­tant con­cept, but I think some­thing’s missing. 

In games, it’s not enough just to be able to fig­ure out how to make Mario jump—for instance—you want to learn how to jump well.

It’s about skill and mas­tery in oth­er words. A “Nor­man Door” (a door that is dif­fi­cult to open) can be fixed so that peo­ple can open the door eas­i­ly. But a door has a nar­row spec­trum of learn­abil­i­ty. Or as Koster would prob­a­bly say: The pat­tern to “grok” is real­ly simple. 

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

And any­way, why would you want to become a mas­ter at open­ing doors, right?

But a lot of the things I’m work­ing on (for instance cre­ative tools, but also toy-like envi­ron­ments) have more com­plex pat­terns and there­fore (wether I like it or not) have a wider spec­trum of learn­abil­i­ty. And that’s where usabil­i­ty alone is not enough. That’s where in test­ing, I’d need to make sure peo­ple don’t just under­stand how to do stuff by look­ing at it. (That’s the start, for sure.) But I also want to be able to tell if peo­ple can get bet­ter at doing stuff. Because if they get bet­ter at it, that’s when they’ll be hav­ing fun.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psy­chol­o­gy of Every­day Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still con­sid­er myself young, only slight­ly less cocky. []