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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Building a user-derived interface


Many human-computer interfaces are designed with the assumption that the user must adapt to the system, that users must be trained and their behavior altered to fit a given interface. The research presented here proceeds from the alternative assumption: Novice behavior is inherently sensible, and the computer system can be made to adapt to it. Specifically, a measurably easy-to-use interface was built to accommodate the actual behavior of novice users. Novices attempted an electronic mail task using a command-line interface containing no help, no menus, no documentation, and no instruction. A hidden operator intercepted commands when necessary, creating the illusion of an interactive session. The software was repeatedly revised to recognize users' new commands; in essence, the interface was derived from user behavior. This procedure was used on 67 subjects. The first version of the software could recognize only 7 percent of all the subjects' spontaneously generated commands; the final version could recognize 76 percent of these commands. This experience contradicts the idea that user input is irrelevant to the design of command languages. Through careful observation and analysis of user behavior, a mail interface unusable by novices evolved into one that let novices do useful work within minutes.

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