One of the aspirations of those trying to feed information into the brain through the senses is how to make the process intuitive. Roughly we know what this means: we want to have the information be self-explanatory, to not require any further thought, to immediately and naturally provoke the behavior that we intended. But what exactly does this mean in practice? How does it break down?
During my research for my Wired feature on feeding information through the senses (April 2007 issue), this is one of the questions I really wanted to get to the heart of. Among the people I discussed the issue with was Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist from the University of Oxford here in the UK. Spence is particularly interested in creating devices that will make cars safer by warning drivers about hazards, waking them up, etc. In particular one of the things they are looking at is whether they can build some kind of vibrating device into the seat belt that can give us a “tap on the shoulder,” telling us where to look if there’s some hazard we’re not paying attention to.
Obviously, what he wants is this warning to be intuitive.
But, as he told me after my visit to the lab, there is no functional definition of intuitive in experimental psychology. Instead, most of what his team measures relates to attention. For instance, in the experiment pictured, I have to respond to the two lights on the table by pressing buttons, and two vibrating arm bands using floor pedals. The idea is to see whether I get distracted or fooled because, say, light and buzz come together, or one buzz is stronger than the other.
Because they have no definition of intuitive, no theory of how information is most easily ‘digested’ by the brain, all they can do is measure how quickly and accurately the person does what’s required of them. If they do this using a lot of different types of warning system they can then decide that the one that gave the best results is the most intuitive. Great. But how does that help you to make the system moreintuitive? Engineers want design rules, and I think the place to start is to look at three things: data complexity, the information having a physical meaning, and relevance. I’ll explain in more detail in the next post.
Photo: My chance to be a guinea pig in a University of Oxford experiment. I react to lights on the table and buzzes through the bands on my arms by pressing buttons with my finger and pedals with my feet.