This is difficult to express. I often see it when my daughter (17 months soon) meets something new: how she immediately senses the purpose of something she has never seen. “User interface elements” that somehow communicate how they work. Slots are for putting things in – even if whatever it is that has the slot isn’t a machine; it might not even be a slot, it just looks that way. Buttons might not be buttons, but since they stand out both physically and by having a contrasting color, she interprets them as buttons. They catch her attention; attract.

Places communicate this as well. They are somehow laid out to draw you toward a particular spot; the place suggests to you where something that might be interesting to you can be found. Stairs are an example of a very obvious user interface element in places. Stairs seem to somehow communicate that you should climb them. Probably because of the way that the steps gets smaller and smaller the farther up the stairs you look – it’s as if the visual image of a staircase draws you to it.

I have a feeling that you could create a place with rooms and machines that are completely intuitive, so that you can leave a child with basic motor skills at the entrance, and he or she will know where to go, and what to do when he or she gets there. It would be laid out to attract the children to a specific place. Perhaps it is possible to convey, in an intuitive way, the message that the child can choose between a set of options, so that the place can attract the children to different endpoints.

I’m fascinated by how new games are invented on the fly as you play with a small child. Somehow, both you and the child instantly know the rules of the new game. And you play it. And you realize what variations the game offers, and you try them. The child tries other. But there’s a clear structure to each particular game. Children aren’t completely irrational.

If these principles were identified – and they probably have been, but I don’t know where and by whom – they should be the foundation for all user interfaces: the subway, big official buildings, airports, computers, GUIs, VCRs, and so forth. The things would communicate to you, without words, just by the way they look and feel, how you use them, and what services they offer.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on June 15, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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