Stumbling on Usability

Whether we know it or not, we all have psychological blind spots, and struggle with realism versus idealism. It is a natural part of the human condition. As UX professionals we must be aware of this and not let our assumptions limit us, or hinder the users we design for. Read how one psychology professor, and highly readable author, defines the problem, and how we can learn from him to better our work.

Of Bugs and Humbugs

We all have blind spots. Literally and figuratively. Blind spots are areas of reality we are not normally aware of. We have blind spots of vision (physiological), blind spots of perception (experiential and cultural), even of blind spots of themselves (psychological).

Not to worry, though; it’s only natural. It’s because, dear reader, mother nature loves you… she doesn’t want you to see everything at at once. Imagine how overwhelming it would be to take in all of the information surrounding you, at any time, all the time. No, mother knows better. She wants you to be happy. And sensory input and processing limitations also provide us the capacity for concentration, focus… choice. Is that so bad?

As ever, though, there’s a trade off. While this gift of selective perception provides us mental focus and a degree of “ignorant bliss,” it limits us, too. The result of this natural filtering of our cognition is the essential theme of Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. A book I’m happy to recommend to UX Designers of every stripe (or solid) as extremely relevant to interaction design theory and practice. Gilbert is an award winning Harvard Psychologist and writer with an extremely readable and humorous writing style.

In Part III, The Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye, Gilbert describes the problem of Realism. Realism is, essentially, the belief that our senses deliver reality unfiltered to our faculties of apprehension. And if you have a hunch that this is not exactly so, your skepticism is wise. If we say that our senses must be believed, we might as well say that the world really is flat, too. It does appear so looking out our window, after all. Yet we moderns don’t believe that now, because we have (shared) contrary evidence. Science has lit the way and we’re free, thankfully, from the limits of own perceptions. Right? Well, when it comes to planetary science, at least, yes. In the world of user interface design, eh, not so fast.

Old Habits Die Hard, Older Habits Die Harder

Realism Versus Idealism in Predicting User Experience

Gilbert presents the story of The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for human perception. When Toto knocks down the screen to reveal Oz as he truly is, the initially very scary Wizard—our fear of the possibility that our senses are not to be believed?—is suddenly more benign, even comical. On the discovery that The Oz is not who he pretended to be, Dorothy declares “I think you are a very bad man.” “Oh no, my dear,” Oz replies, “I’m a very good man, but I’m a very bad wizard.”

To cite Gilbert; “When people see giant floating heads, it is because giant heads are actually floating in their purview, and the only question for a psychologically minded philosopher was how brains accomplish this amazing act of faithful reflection. But in 1781 a reclusive German professor named Immanuel Kant broke loose, knocked over the screen in the corner of the room, and exposed the brain as a humbug of the highest order. Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brain, but rather, that they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we we already think, feel, know, want and believe, and then use this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality.” I suppose that at some level there is a mathematical formula for this mixing of fixed and variable values that occur to us as “reality.” I like to think of this as a kind of Mandelbrot Set for reality.

As an aside I think it is interesting that Aristotle, in his De Aspectibus, proposed a theory of human vision involving a visual ray that is emitted from the eye. If not physically correct, it was amazingly intuitive, as in a sense we do project meaning in to all we see, and as those of us who’ve studied the physics of light and physiology of vision know, color occurs in the brain, not “out there” in the world.

One of the major factors preventing more frequent success in interaction design is the problem of predicting differences in individual perception. That is, because we each think, feel, know, want and believe things uniquely, according to our own development and experiences, we each perceive those “real” objects in the world equally uniquely… the “every man is an island” theory of human perception. It is impossible, apparently, for any two people to experience a thing identically. And this includes human-application interfaces.

These are challenging concepts for us to accept without solid proof. But so was that one about the earth being spherical. That idea took a good long while for us get used to, and I think other ideas still do. One of the most important things a good interaction designer has is humility in the face of human capabilities and limitations.

Again, Gilbert: “If realism goes away, it doesn’t get very far. Research shows that even adults act like realists under the right circumstances. For example, in one study, a pair of adult volunteers were seated opposite side of a set of cubbyholes, as shown [figure below].

blind spots in user experience

Some common objects were placed in several of the cubbies. Some of these cubbies were open on both sides, so that items such as the large truck and the medium truck were clearly visible to both volunteers. Other cubbies were open on one side, so that items such as as the small truck could be seen by one volunteer, but not by the other. The volunteers played a game in which the person with the [obstructed] view (the director) told the person with the clear view (the mover) to move certain objects to certain locations. Now, what should have happened when the director said “move the small truck to the bottom row”? If the mover were an idealist, she should move the medium truck because she would realize that the director could not see the small truck, hence he must have been referring to the medium truck, which from the director’s point of view, was the smallest. On the other hand, if the mover were a realist, the she would move the small truck without regard for the fact the the director could not see it as she could, hence could not have been referring to it when he gave his instruction.”

I would say that in my experience, albeit limited, most software engineers, and many interaction designers, are realists. Again, its just a matter of human nature. A limitation to be aware of, but too human to be ashamed of. But if we’re to advance interaction design in general, and increase the frequency of our successes, we should throw off the assumptions of realism and take a more idealistic approach by testing through methodical communication—user research—with people on the other side of the interaction, to discover their actual perceptions.

Attitude is Everything: The Poor Man’s Guide to Usability

When it comes to testing user experience, I think Ice Cube said it best, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.” If we don’t stop to observe our processes of thought and communication, as individuals and project teams, and challenge our assumptions, how can we make interactions better, be they human-human, computer-computer, or human-computer?

As interaction designers our job is to reveal our blind spots at every turn and factor them in to The Design of Everyday Things. This is, of course, a simplification of role of UX Design. Yet if we don’t have an advanced degree in psychology or “human factors,” how do we make ourselves see what we don’t, aware of what we are unaware, conscious of what we are unconscious?

I’m not a Buddhist, but I think Buddhism has a lesson for us here. That is, to embrace a little paradox and give up realism for the sake of a more genuine experience… to assume a Beginner’s Mind: an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness, and lack of preconceptions, as every true beginner does.


The essential nature of human consciousness it to interpret. Perhaps consciousness is not even possible without interpretation, making real objectivity almost impossible. In any case, we are, so to speak, fish swimming in waters too familiar to bother noticing. We accept our perceptions realistically, and sell ourselves short. This essential problem is why taking an idealistic—an user-centric—approach to interaction design is all important to professional user interface designers. To be effective we can not afford to assume that others see things as we do, no matter how tempting it may be, or how “flat” the world may appear to our senses. This, I here assert, is the essential mindset necessary for designing desirable interactions.

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