During a summer internship at NASA, many years ago, I met a researcher who was conceptualizing the interface property of ‘explorability’. I can’t claim that I accurately can communicate the nuances of Jean-Marc Robert‘s model, but I was intrigued with the notion. The idea that interfaces could differ on the extent that they supported experimentation and subsequent comprehension seemed valuable. The requisite property would be predictability, requiring consistency, and learnable interfaces would empower users.
A related concept is Andi diSessa‘s ‘incremental advantage’, where he proposed that interfaces should elegantly allow the investment by a user to learn more to provide more power. So his Boxer software environment supported gradual addition of concepts to yield more computational capability. The underlying notion of ‘the more you learn, the more you can do’ again seems like a user-empowering concept.
Fast-forward a few years, and as a newly-minted academic using HyperCard for student interface design projects, I recognized that the notion of buttons, fields, and backgrounds provided a reasonable implementation of the ideas of explorability and incremental advantage. I proposed that the key idea was supporting correct inferences about how to make things happen. Interestingly, the English-like nature of HyperTalk supported both some correct and some incorrect inferences about making more complex logic.
As a side note, a combination between software design supporting a strong conceptual model, and software training that builds the model (not rote procedures), strikes me as a learning approach that is far more powerful but seldom seen. Similarly for other learning outcomes, models are powerful thinking tools that we do not leverage sufficiently.
The reason I mention this is two-fold; I want to bring this concept to light, and to build on it. As I mentioned before, I think we need to make editable environments to support collaborative tool building. This will become more important, going forward, for reasons that I intend to elaborate across two subsequent posts. Stay tuned!