The past six months I have been on parental leave to enjoy our son Felix (born 13 December 2015), and today I am finally back at the university. In these months I have seen a baby grow from not being able to do anything except for reflexes, to understanding objects around him, interacting with them, and manipulating them to do what he wants (although not yet always successfully). Watching him go through these stages of learning actually reminded me of the above gif captioned as how software developers see end users. When I saw that gif a while ago it gave me a laugh, but then I saw that my son had taken my bottle of water, and what he was doing was actually quite similar; licking the bottom, sucking on the side, holding it with his feet.
At some point he figured out what the top part is, and put that in his mouth, which left me to wonder how he figured it out. I left the cap on, so it’s not a simple trial-reward since he still cannot drink the water. Instead, I think there are two aspects of this learning process: visual feedback (seeing what side is supposed to be up), and learning by playing.
Regarding visual feedback, let’s look at software, taking the above as inspiration. Rather than seeing silly users, we see users interacting with the software for the first time, and not having an understanding yet of what to do. In development, we should ask what visual feedback there is for the user to know what to do. An empty search box does not provide information about what kind of results one might expect. Whitelaw, M., 2015. Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections. DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, 9(1) A list of search results does not tell how those results were retrieved. Kemman, M., Kleppe, M. & Scagliola, S., 2014. Just Google It. In C. Mills, M. Pidd, & E. Ward, eds. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Sheffield, UK: HRI Online Publications A “run” button does not tell what the software will do. An approach in usability of software is to (try to) simplify user interfaces, but such “dumbing down” can have detrimental effects on other areas, e.g. when the user tries to understand what the software is doing. However, providing visual feedback need not be a dumbing down of the software, but an increasing of the learnability of software. As recently tweeted by software developer Josh Elman, if the software is learnable, and if it’s worth spending time with, users will do so.
Products don’t have to be “easy to use” just “easy to learn” and create strong motivation to learn and want to use.
— Josh Elman (@joshelman) August 19, 2016
This brings me to learning by playing. An important aspect of learning is that one can enjoy the process of learning, rather than just do it because one has to. My son kept playing with the bottle until he figured out how to hold it. Likewise, one should play around with software to learn how it works until one figures out what to do with it. Again, this is not necessarily a trial-reward system, playing around until you get what you expect, but more about playing around to find new opportunities.
This fall I will give my course Introduction to Digital Humanities for students of the History master for the second time. Rather than seeing silly historians who should know how software works, I will look at them as first time users of these digital methods. The challenge for me will be to provide the visual feedback so they can see what they have in front of them, and to generate a playful environment in which they can learn by playing. If licking the software is a step in learning to use it, then as a teacher I can only support that learning process.
|↑1||Whitelaw, M., 2015. Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections. DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, 9(1)|
|↑2||Kemman, M., Kleppe, M. & Scagliola, S., 2014. Just Google It. In C. Mills, M. Pidd, & E. Ward, eds. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Sheffield, UK: HRI Online Publications|