500 Words, Day 12 / by dan turner

It's obvious that Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator video fantasized about features that would take decades to implement – but the narrative, either by coincidence or design, also presaged many of the design precepts and methodologies that user experience research and design is today based on.

The video pans over a desk with a college-crested mug, a geode, framed family photos, academic-looking papers, while non-diegetic classical music plays. We cut to the office space (more books, a globe) as our protagonist walks in, taking off his sport coat.

This is a PERSONA, usually the result of qualitative and/or ethnographic research, surveys, and competitive analyses. This creates a portrait of a goal user: as surely as if we saw someone wearing a smudged smock walk in to a room with half-painted canvases, we know that this user is: A) a family man B) a professional C) scientifically curious D) of advanced education. (That he is a white male is probably at least partially an artifact of the time.) UX designers use personas to build use cases, set product boundaries, and as help in achieving a radical empathy with the user (that is, forgetting what you, as the designer, know about the product).

Mr. Prof's interactions with his Knowledge Navigator highlight many of what Jakob Nielsen called "the 10 most general principles for interaction design" (many of these ideas Nielsen developed in 1990 with Molich, but I'm linking here to an overview from 1995).

– As soon as Mr. Prof opens his device, it sounds a tone, signaling Nielsen's first principle of good design: visibility of system status.

– The Bill Nye-looking intelligent agent (side note: would Clippy have succeeded if he'd looked like Bill Nye?) begins to recount missed messages. It speaks in natural language, showing Nielsen's second principle of matching the system to the real world: "system should speak the users' language."

– Mr. Prof interrupts the agent, which stops its actions. This is Nieslen's rule of user control and freedom: allowing "to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue".

– Later, when Mr. Prof asks for a search of articles of certain parameters, the agent asks, "Journal articles only?" This is a clever demonstration of Nielsen's error prevention: "careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place".

 – Other demonstrations of Nielsen's principles are left as an exercise for the reader.

Throughout the video, we see almost a Nirvana of the UX tool of contextual inquiry: Mr. Prof does just about what we'd imagine he'd do without the Knowledge Navigator, but the tool works as he works.

And this, I think, is the ultimate goal of good UX research and design. The reality of the technology to date has been that our tools have to make procedural and process demands on us, so we adapt to them. The next wave of design will be magic; that our designs disappear, as the hard coding behind the Knowledge Navigator does.

And that's 500 words.