Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Are Adaptive Interfaces the Answer?

The problems with adaptive interfaces ...

"Once upon a time, Microsoft had an idea: Why not have the most-often used menu items rise to the top of the menu, and have seldom-used items hide below a fold. In one fell swoop, Microsoft provided a solution to the problem of a single interface needing to meet the needs of many different users, from many different walks of life.

Great idea, right?

Wrong!

The idea hasn't worked out so well in practice. Many users turn off adaptive menus in Office because they find the feature extremely frustrating. Even Microsoft's own designers have admitted that adaptive menus didn't work out the way they hoped. The feature has been removed quietly from the latest versions of Microsoft Office.

What was the problem? Adaptive interfaces have several drawbacks, and the big one is that they're intrinsically hard to learn. If you're trying to learn an adaptive interface, you have to chase after a moving target: "Where did that menu item go? It was here yesterday...". Even a user experienced with the interface will have a hard time habituating to it, since the locations of commands are not consistent. It's an interface that moves in the night.

Adaptive interfaces are a strange and awkward dance: a computer program trying to adapt to a human's behavior, while the human tries to adapt to the computer program's behavior. Of the two, which one do you think is better equipped for the job? Until we have an artificial intelligence good enough to read the user's mind, the human is always going to be better at learning. A computer that's clever--but not clever enough--is simply dumb. Even if it works 75% of the time, its going to really throw you a quarter of the times you try to use it. So rather than trying to make the interface more clever at outguessing humans, we'd prefer to put our effort into making the interface easier for humans to learn."    (Continued via Humanized)    [Usability Resources]

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