When designing products usability is a key feature. That’s why we aim to design usability systems that are as easy as possible to learn and to remember. I’ve also often read and heard that a good product should be so easy to use that your granny could use it.
But that seems to go in the opposite direction of what we usually say when we describe an easy task. Why in UX we use to say that it has to be easy for an old adult rather than say that it must be “child’s play”?
And what’s wrong with my granny!?
Experience makes life easier
The human brain is designed to record actions in order to build experience.
Experience makes us faster when we need to execute actions or take decisions. Having in our brains a record of how we performed an action or similar ones, or how we solved a problem in the past, we are able to quickly understand how to behave in similar situations in present time.
Experience makes us take safe decisions, faster.
However, when we face something completely new, expertise can make us struggle.
The key is flexibility
An adult has experience and skills that kids don’t have, and that’s actually why for kids is so easy to learn about the world and acquire new skills.
Kids are not just blank canvas, they also have more and more dynamic connections in their brains as physiologist Ian Campbell of the University of California, Davis said: “The fact that there are more connections [in a child’s brain] allows things to be moved around”. That’s the reason why kids are good learners, they learn making new connections instead of using the ones made in the past.
Pruning connections to build up experience and lower flexibility
So why are we losing this wonderful ability to connect things in a new way along our lives? The reason is a process called “synaptic pruning”.
Quoting physiologist Ian Campbell (from an article appeared on LiveScience):
“When a child is born, their brain is not fully-formed, and over the first few years there’s a great proliferation of connections between cells […] Over adolescence, there is a pruning back of these connections. The brain decides which connections are important to keep, and which can be let go.”
“The fact that there are more connections [in a child’s brain] allows things to be moved around, […] After adolescence, that alternate route is no longer available. You lose the ability to recover from a brain injury, or the ability to learn a language without an accent. But you gain adult cognitive powers.”
So, seems that our brains keep and reinforce the connections that we use more frequently while pruning the less used because irrelevant. All to make us more efficient.
The process is thought to help the brain transition from childhood, when it is able to learn and make new connections easily, to adulthood when it is a bit more settled in its structure, but can focus on a single problem for longer and carry out more complex thought processes.
Adults expect standards
So, our brain shapes itself during our lives in order to make us remember better instead of learning better, and here stays the reason why we should design for my granny. She’s old, and can’t learn how to use new, complex interfaces that ignore what she has learned in her life. She needs interfaces to which she can relate in some way because her brain really doesn’t allow her to be flexible.
Of course, the “granny” thing is an exaggeration but adults really expect standards, no time to think, no time for new stuff because it’ll require too much of an effort* and many won’t remember it anyway. Raise your hand if you too have tried hundreds of times to teach one of your parents to use computer-related tasks (of many, my worst is the “Save as” function) ending up being called at the laptop every single time to solve that issue again and again.
The only exceptions to the rule would be some product that precisely aims to break standards like brain games, artistic projects, or kid’s learning products (a good idea to train kids’ logic before their minds get too rigid).
*(unless it’s Apple launching a new iPhone feature, then everybody’s going to say it’s great and long requested, no matter what they’ll use it)