Learnability vs. Intuition

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections between information literacy, user instruction, and UX. I currently work as a reference and instruction librarian in academia, and so I’m very interested in the ways people search for information and use online learning objects and search tools to find what they need. I’ve developed a passion for UX and content strategy as a result of my library, instruction, and editing work and that passion led me to attend the PDX Women in IT event this week. I met some amazing women there with amazing ideas, and one of them mentioned a concept I’d thought about but had not been able to articulate: learnability vs. intution. Might it sometimes be more important to think about how learnable your online interface/tool is instead of how intuitive it is to use it? Aren’t online interfaces essentially artifical spaces we need to learn rather than intuit? Humans are not yet born with any innate ability to intuit use of online interfaces, at least not until the singularity arrives.

I think there’s something to this. I think this UX Booth post from Michael Wilson asks the right question: When is Learnability More Important than Usability? While I’m a fan of Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” philosophy, I think there are times when users (or students if that’s who you’re working with) may need to be guided toward persistence in learning an interface. The rewards of persistence are key here. Wilson quotes Vivek Haldar: “… a steep learning curve will eventually lead users who persist with the application to use it more efficiently.” Haldar also makes the point that the learning curve never goes away, that it “has value, it is essential for learning, and it needs to be preserved, not whittled away in the name of ‘ease-of-use’.”

There’s something about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motiviation in all this, as well as gamification. In fact, I think gamification may have some answers to the question of how to bring some “fun” to persistence (and now we’re back to intrinsic vs. extrinsic reward). I can’t tease this all out in the 15 minutes I’ve set myself to blog today. But I can keep thinking about it. It’s so important in terms of the way we teach, learn, search, and interact with the online world today. We want to make our tools learnable and rewarding in terms of their use. We don’t want to make them TOO hard to use, but there’s value in the reward a user feels when they DO learn how to use your tool, your site, your game, etc. When they learn to apply it to their own needs. So how do we as educators, designers, guides-on-the-side, strike this balance?