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There was an interesting discussion on UX.StackExchange related to washing machines and their front windows. I was very surprised that it took me like 2 minutes or so to figure out why the washing machine has a window, but most of the answers or comments (including those with many votes) don't express the real reason, which would be similar to this:

For front-loaders without viewing windows on the door, it is possible to accidentally pinch fabric between the door and the drum, resulting in tearing and damage to the pinched clothing during tumbling and spinning. - Wikipedia.

Question: Does a more ergonomic and user friendly interface make the human brain work less, or less intensive, so it can not see the initial purpose of an improvement made in a system or on one of its elements?

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I do not understand the second part of the question ("so it cannot see the initial purpose ..."). –  what Feb 5 at 14:46
Thank you for your feedback, I created a separated question here –  Mr. Jack Feb 5 at 15:22
Cool :-) Can we try and clarify the "Question" section of this question as well? Could you give some kind of example for the "initial purpose" part of your question, or elaborate a bit on it, in a comment? We can later delete the comments. But maybe we can come up with a better answer, if we better understand what you want to know. (But then maybe it's just me. Sometimes I'm a bit slow.) –  what Feb 5 at 15:35
Just figured out the second part. Here's a paraphrasing: "Can an interface become so user-friendly that a user will ultimately fail to understand the need for the improvements to the interface's user-friendliness?" This isn't a better phrasing IMHO; just a different angle on the same idea (I think). –  Nick Stauner Feb 6 at 7:32
Yes, the paraphrasing is similar to the initial question. –  Mr. Jack Feb 6 at 9:26
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

ISO 9241, a standard covering ergonomics of human-computer interaction, defines in its subsection 9241-110, "Dialogue Principles", that the interface in information systems should be (among other things):

  • suitable for the task
  • facilitate learning
  • conform with user expectations
  • describe its own purpose and functioning

You could translate all this to:

Don't make the user think too hard about what he has to do

Shneiderman, in his "Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design" and Nielsen in his "10 Usability Heuristics of User Interface Design" (also on Wikipedia), make this even more explicit:

  • Shneiderman, Rule 8: Reduce short-term memory load
  • Nielsen, Heuristic 6: Recognition rather than recall

Reducing cognitive load is part of the industry definition of usability. By that definition a usable product "makes the human brain work less".


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I'll add that the less a person feels the need to contemplate the use of a particular device, or the less that comprehending an interface requires conscious deliberation, is the less that the person will realize just how much work went into optimizing the process for him/her, and the more likely that the person will take the user-friendly appliance for granted, much as modern generations relate to electricity, cars, and even computers in largely nonchalant and even unappreciative ways. This is just intuitive speculation on my part though. –  Nick Stauner Feb 6 at 7:37
Good point of view, @NickStauner. I think it is more than just speculation. –  Mr. Jack Feb 6 at 9:29
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The answer is "yes." The entire field of Human Factors and Ergonomics is devoted to enhancing the experience of the human user. Cognitive engineering is the branch of human factors that focuses specifically on how people perceive and respond to system interfaces. Engineers and scientists in this field try to design components, systems, interfaces, and even training to be the best fit for the users. By exploiting built-in capabilities and navigating around known pitfalls with human cognitive abilities, we can design systems that are more natural and thereby safer and more effective to operate.

Now, as to whether the design of the interface has anything to do with people failing to see possible improvement(s) - I think this is unrelated. If you read Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, he makes a big deal about how people blame themselves for the ergonomic shortfalls of a poorly designed thing.

Take a push-pull door with pull handles on both sides of the door. The natural action is to walk up and pull on the handle, because handles afford pulling (regardless of what side of the door they are on). So, you pull on the "push side," then blame yourself for not reading the sign that said "Push," when in fact it was a bad design that led you to pull in the first place. And you carry on without a second thought, nevermind the fact that it was the designer, not you, who is an imbecile.

So, the short answer to the second part of the question is people don't generally think about improving the system, they think about how to avoid making mistakes in using the system.

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Great comment on the push-pull doors. It's so true! "Reduce cognitive load": instead of a written sign that you have to read and process, simply provide a surface (no handle) that can only be pushed on the push side, and all confusion is gone. –  what Feb 7 at 9:06
Exactly what Donald Norman says! If a thing needs a sign to tell people what to do with it, the design is a failure. –  rmayer06 Feb 8 at 16:27
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