Last month myself and Colin travelled up to London to attend the LFPUG and saw two excellent presentations from Rob Bateman and Tink.

During Rob’s presentation on Optimising visual interfaces for the human brain something was brought up that I hadn’t considered previously; the difference between “Intuition” and “Conditioning”. This wasn’t a major part of the presentation but something that got me thinking nonetheless.

Intuition, for the sake of this discussion, is similar to instinct, they are a form of common sense that perhaps cannot be associated to any specific learning experience.
Conditioning, is a more manufactured type of action that we may perform, we’ve been told to do it this way, we’ve been doing it like this for some time, so when we want to do something, we’ll try to do it this way.

The above are two very crude explanations, I have no psychological knowledge and so have drawn these explanations from the presentation last month and some brief further reading. Please feel free to offer any comments below, agreeing or otherwise.

Anyway, what has this got to do with interface design? Actually quite a lot I have realised. Usability is obviously a very important factor of interface design, the user has got to instantly feel comfortable with their environment and almost know where to look and what to click in order to achieve a desired action. Even if they have never before performed this action. When designing an interface, we have to make a concious decision on whether we feel it is appropriate to target a user’s intuition, conditioning or both or even if there is a distinction between the two.

This is perhaps best explained by example, of which there were several in Rob’s presentation which I am unashamedly going to borrow.
Windows Dialogue OK CancelMac dialogue OK Cancel

Here are two “OK” / “Cancel” dialogue prompts, one is for Mac one is for Windows. Despite aesthetics, the fundemental difference between the two is that for Mac the Cancel option is to the left, for Windows this is to the right. Aparently, the rationale for Mac putting their cancel button on the left and the OK button on the right is because it is synonomous with the Escape and Return keys on a keyboard. I would assume the Windows approach is based on the typical left to right reading and expected order of events, confirm or reject.

Another example is one I thought of whilst getting my mind in knots trying to get my head around this. If I were to launch a completely new program, with a save option, it would be perfectly reasonable for me to offer access to the save feature by way of a floppy disk icon. Why is this? Is a floppy disk icon the most intuitive approach? No it’s probably not, I’m sure many new and younger computer users wouldn’t even know what a floppy disk was (maybe most would at present but give it another few years), when was the last time you saved to a floppy disk? This is what I would consider conditioning, we’re used to doing it this way so we’ll continue to do so even if it might not be the most appropriate approach for new and future users.

I’m not sure there is a distinct line between intuition and conditioning. It almost seems as if they are both results of a way we get used to doing things only intuition is more towards being hard-wired as part of who we are as opposed to conditioning being something we are more recently used to doing. Thats not to say i think intuition is not affected by our development within our individual surroundings. For example, would someone who reads arabic, or other right to left language, expect to see the first option on the right, second on the left? Do operating systems even take this into consideration in translated versions? It’s all food for thought but definitely worth bearing in mind when thinking about your application audience. If you get a chance do check out the online video of Rob’s presentation as there is a lot more interesting and useful information about much more than just intuition.