The web regularly delights Bill Thompson with what it finds for him
Designers and developers should be consulting their psychologists, says Bill Thompson
One of the most wonderful things about spending a lot of my day online is that there is always something interesting to read when work gets boring or I'm waiting for the coffee to brew.
And I don't even have to go looking for things to read, as the Bloglines news aggregator brings the latest postings from the ninety-two websites I'm most interested in to one place, checking their RSS feeds and managing them for me.
All I have to do is skim through looking for anything that catches my eye and seems worth a little attention.
So today I got to see what claims to be the best ever photograph of Jupiter taken from an earth-based telescope, captured by an 8.2m telescope in Chile using new "adaptive optics", and learned that Superstruct, the Institute for the Future's "massively multiplayer forecasting game", has just gone live. I signed up straight away.
Then the serendipitous nature of the web took me to BoingBoing, a group blog that calls itself a "directory of wonderful things" which is, although sometimes deeply annoying, always interesting.
And that in turn led to a paper on the Scientific Commons website, a two-year old doctoral thesis by a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in which he reports on his experiments comparing different forms of computer interface in problem-solving.
It is one of the most interesting examinations of current computer use and the potential downsides of our increasing reliance on screen-based interaction with information systems that I've seen, although of course I would never have come across it without those same information systems.
Psychologist Christof van Nimwegen is interested in effective user interfaces for computer systems, and distinguishes between systems that require users to internalise the knowledge needed to carry out a task and those that externalise it in the form of wizards, prompts, menus and the other elements we associate with modern computers.
A typical form of externalisation is when you select and drag an item on an interface and it shows where you can drop it by highlighting areas as you move over them. You don't need to know what is going on, you just need to follow the cues.
Van Nimwegen's investigation focused on the ways in which externalizing interface information influences a user's performance in solving problems requiring planning, tasks that are more complicated than just creating or editing a document.
They asked users to solve a reasonably complex puzzle involving moving different coloured balls between two boxes using a small dish, and built two versions of the game program, one of which offered more guidance to the user - involved more externalisation - than the other.
They found those with less support could play better after an initial learning period. They also coped better with interruptions and remembered more about playing the game after an eight-month gap, indicating that they had internalised the game rules more than those who got support from the game program.
The same results were found with more realistic applications including a conference scheduler.
Van Nimwegen's work is important on many levels, and anyone designing user interfaces should read it as it provides experimental evidence to support hunches we have all had for many years about the depth of learning that different interfaces encourage.
Good interface design is crucial to making computers useful
It is also the sort of basic psychological research that we desperately need in the Web 2.0 world where major sites like Facebook are constantly being redesigned on the basis of little real understanding of how people engage with their computers.
Vast amounts of work have been done in our attempt to understand human psychology, and the investigation of how we can use computer systems for co-operative work has been going on for decades. Yet few of today's user interface designers seem to make use of the things we already know.
The research carried out by psychologists is important because it involves proper experiments, with control groups, null hypotheses and statistical analysis - all the things that focus groups and usability labs don't have.
Making use of the results in the real world is not easy, but it is very worthwhile, despite the temptations to skip the hard stuff and just get on and build the website or launch the computer.
One of the criticisms of the One Laptop per Child project to get low-cost computers into the hands of the world's poorest children was that there was no pedagogical framework, no attempt to design learning systems around the technology.
But at least someone is doing some serious work on the usefulness of computers generally, work that can be applied to all classroom computers and not just the OLPC.
We just have to hope that educationalists, technologists and interface designers pay attention.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.