Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Perpetual Super-Novice

Designing for the novice user ...

"In this column, I want to further explore one of the issues I mentioned in my inaugural column. I call it the problem of the perpetual super-novice. What is this? Simply put, it’s the tendency of people to stop learning about a digital product—whether it’s an operating system, desktop application, Web site, or hardware device.

After initially becoming somewhat familiar with a system, people often continue using the same inefficient, time-consuming styles of interaction they first learned. For example, they fail to discover shortcuts and accelerators in the applications they use. Other people learn only a small portion of a product’s capabilities and, as a result, don’t realize the full benefits the product offers. Why? What can operating systems, applications, Web sites, and devices do to better facilitate a person’s progression from novice to expert usage?

First, I’ll take a moment to define some terms. Here are three classifications for levels of user expertise I typically employ when discussing this issue:

* beginner—The beginning user has never before or rarely used a particular digital product. For beginners, almost every interaction with a system is exploratory. Their physical movements—and the on-screen representations of their movements—are mostly explicit and thoughtful. During this phase, users are trying to figure out what a product does and how they can use it. They are actively acquiring knowledge and creating and modifying their mental models.
* novice—The novice user has ascended the learning curve somewhat. Novice users have committed certain basic operations of a system to memory—either cognitive or muscle memory. They are comfortable within a circumscribed portion of a system’s total functionality. Their mental models of how and why a system behaves as it does are by no means complete—and in fact, might be quite inaccurate. But their limited knowledge has no adverse effects, so long as novice users stay within their comfort zones. If novice users need to learn some new area of functionality, their behavior reverts to that of a beginner while learning.
* expert—The expert user not only has mastery over many aspects of a system, the user’s mental model of the system is complete and accurate enough that learning a new area of functionality occurs rapidly and easily. Expert users not only know a product; they know how to learn more about the product.

Certainly, people become experts when there is a strong extrinsic motivation to do so. For example, you might learn how to do a mail merge in your word processing application, because, well, the boss just asked you to do a mail merge. But in the absence of extrinsic motivation, it seems that many people stay novices or, at most, become a form of knowledgeable novice that I call the super-novice. Super-novices know a lot about the limited parts of a system they use regularly and almost nothing about the other parts."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]


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