The UX of Proverbs

I have been reading this great book called Made to Stick. (Great so far)  In it, they talk about Proverbs.  Proverbs are short phrase-like ideas that encode a much deeper meaning into them.  They are much easier to remember because of the encoding.  Examples:

  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
  • The bigger they are the harder they fall
  • This too shall pass (Katie’s favorite)
  • When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

These are extremely sticky ideas and have been translated into hundreds of languages.  Some proverbs are thousands of years old and still resonate today.

User Interface also has a kind of proverb at work.  The most important one is WIMP.  Developed at Xerox Parc, WIMP stands for Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing Devices.  WIMP is the primary way that all graphical user interfaces work.  It’s easier to remember WIMP than WIPM, even though one letter is swapped.  However, the key proverb I am talking about is language of the GUI itself.

If you learn what a pointer is, you can use thousands of applications.  If you learn what a Window, Icon and a Menu is, you are basically trained on using computers.  Apple and Microsoft also rely on another concept, the “Desktop” to mean an important place and to provide an important metaphor.  The point is that UI proverbs are hugely powerful.  Learn one, learn them all.

At Marketo, I usually show a customer the product by focusing on one particular aspect:  The SmartList.  It’s a cool segmentation tool that is unique to Marketo.  I say, “If you learn the SmartList, everything in Marketo will be easy.”  Find that special aspect of your application.  More importantly, make sure that one of these UI proverbs exist.  In other words, use patterns, always be consistent.  Make the user learn as few new “ideas” as possible.  Then encode the idea into learning one key learnable element that exercises that portion of your application.

Consistency is the key.  UI proverbs don’t work if there are exceptions riddled throughout the app.  If you introduce right-clicking, make sure its available everywhere.

Just remember:  If at first you d0n’t succeed. Try, try again.  Get back on that horse!

Whatya think?