The User Experience of Life

In 2008, Christof van Nimwegen published a paper called The paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter-effective. The paper documents a study on user interfaces and pits two groups of interfaces against each other in order to see how their users perform.

Although I completely understand how the study can be applied as a learning tool on how to better develop user interfaces, I believe it helps us learn an even better lesson in life.

The study had a “friendly” or easy to use interface and a “unfriendly” or difficult to use interface competing against one another.

Nimwegen conducted experiments with 3 different applications. The first is a computerized take on the famous math puzzle Missionaries & Cannibals that was called Balls & Boxes. The other two tasks were called: Conference Planner and Ferry Planner.

The Balls & Boxes problem involved moving yellow and blue balls from one box to the other, whilst following a set of rules. On the screen users would see the balls in two boxes, together with a dish to transfer the balls between them. There was also a set of clickable arrows that let the users move balls and the dish around. Available arrows were highlighted and clickable, unavailable moves were greyed out and disabled. The “unfriendly” version was the same, except all arrows were “available”, giving the user no hint as to what moves they could actually perform in line with the rules of the task.

What Was Measured

Time to solve the puzzle, number of moves made (including number of superfluous moves), number of dead-end states reached, knowledge of the rules test conducted after the puzzle, as well as questions concerning perceived amount of planning and feeling lost during the puzzle. Additionally, a distraction was introduced after the participants solved a few puzzles, which involved a visual rotation task expected to erase Balls & Boxes related routines from working memory. This distraction task would go on for 10 minutes after which the participants would resume the Balls & Boxes puzzle.

The Results

Those on the Internalization interface solved more puzzles. They initially took more time to solve them, but closed the gap quickly as they spent more time on the problem. While they also made a little more superfluous moves the start, they quickly overtook the Externalization interface participants with each experiment phase, and were not beaten on the number of dead-end states. Internalization participants also performed better on the after puzzle questionnaires.

Lessons Learned

In one interface the user is unable to make bad decisions. The user is only offered available choices to help them complete the task. In theory it seems that this would speed up the process and have better results. In a short race it would have, however this type of interface doesn’t allow the user to learn, grow, and develope. When more choices are presented to the user and they are allowed to make mistakes they are able to learn. So as more puzzles are presented the user is able to grow and become faster and better at solving them.

"Externalization makes users count on the interface and gives them the feeling (unrightfully so) that the thinking-work is done for them. This seduces them into more shallow cognitive behavior and discourages undertaking cognitive activities aimed at strategy and knowledge construction. Users who internalize information themselves behave more plan-based, invest more effort in cognitive processes, and are more proactive and ready to make inferences. This in turn results in more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge. This knowledge is easier to recall at a future point in time, and is better transferable to transfer situations where the interface, the task, or both are different, and less vulnerable to a severe interruption."

— Christof van Nimwegen – The paradox of the guided user

Does this mean user friendly interfaces are bad? No. Interfaces where usability is key, for example, ATMs or information websites will not benefit from Internalization since the tasks don’t have the end goal of the user “learning”. The findings of the study are more applicable to serious task environments where learning itself is the aim. Nimwegen suggests to take care with externalizing especially in tasks with: frequent interruptions, educational objectives, skill transfer, high costs, continuous attention and deep domain understanding.

I believe that “life” is a perfect example of an interface where the primary objective is learning, skill transfer, educational objectives, continuous attention, and deep domain understanding. I don’t believe that a person benefits from an environment where their choices are limited to only “good” or “correct” choices.

(— The source for this post comes from a very interesting post I read on Usability Post called “The Dark Side of Usability”)