What’s so intuitive about the mouse?

Dan wood posted about a “bug” in Tiger and that really got me thinking about our concept of what is intuitive. I often observe the feeling by “experts” that if you can’t take an object or piece of software and “just know” what to do with it, then it is poorly designed. I would agree to a certain extent. If I get in a car and can’t figure out how to turn on the stereo, the dashboard probably needs some work. In this case, the technology is common. Cars have been around for a hundred years now and stereos have been in the cars for as long as I can remember so people are generally familiar with the idea of getting into a car and blasting some tunes. A precedence has been set for the location of the stereo and even the location of power button is usually the same. At this point, if someone puts a stereo under the seat or puts the power button on the bottom left, I would agree that they probably didn’t think very hard about usability.

I do not agree that new technologies have to have this same level of intuitiveness, especially if even the purpose of the new technology represents a new way of doing things. Take the mouse for example. Arguably, it is one of the most usable pieces of technology in existence. Now. But imagine you are living 1963 and you walk into Douglas Engelbart’s office and see a wooden block on his desk with a button on it. He sits you down at his desk and says, “tell me what this does.” What if his computer is off? There is nothing inherently intuitive about a mouse. Once you are shown how it works, you find out that using it really is easy, but the technology was so new at one time that people didn’t just know what to do with it. We have to allow for at least a small learning curve when trying out new technology or we will never advance.

Posted by ryan on August 19, 2005