Clarifying Meanings Through Mindful Set-making

In his classic book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman poses an interesting question:

How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the ark?

Kahneman explains:

The number of people who detect what is wrong with this question is so small that it has been dubbed the “Moses illusion.” Moses took no animals into the ark; Noah did.

I don’t know about you, but the Moses illusion fooled me. So what’s going on here?

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Meeting the User

Early in my career, a support incident taught me a lesson about mental models. Here’s what happened: I was contracted to create a small promotional app for executive assistants who used Windows PCs. Many didn’t have CD drives, so the app was designed to fit on a floppy disk.

To install the app, users would slide the disk into their computer and double-click on a file called something like INSTALL.EXE. Then they’d follow the onscreen prompts. The disk included printed instructions that spelled out the process.

Shortly after we released the app, I got a message from the client. A user was having trouble installing the app. Would I mind taking a look? So I drove to the user’s office and asked her to show me what she was doing. What I saw blew me away.

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Tweaking Users’ Mental Models

Allison Johnson, writing in The Verge:

… the original Apple II version [of the video game Karateka] included a delightful little easter egg from the early days of PC gaming — putting in the floppy disk upside down would boot up the game upside down.

According to [Karateka’s creator Jordan] Mechner, the game’s developers hoped that a few people would discover it by accident, and think their game was defective. “When that person called tech support, that tech support rep would once in a blue moon have the sublime joy of saying, ‘Well sir, you put the disk in upside-down,’” Mechner was quoted as saying in a recent profile, “and that person would think for the rest of their life that’s how software works.”

It may seem disingenuous to suggest users would expect that flipping the software media would cause the software itself to flip. But I’ve been surprised at the many ways people misunderstand how computers work.

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