Software should make recommendations to power users

If it wasn’t obvious in your daily experiences, research has shown that people have very short attention spans. It has to do with how our short term memory operates, or how it’s not really what we might think. We only can hold a few things in our mind at any one time.

One consequence, we’re very goal oriented, and we’ll do exactly what we set out to do, no matter if we take the long path or the short path.

A great example of the long path is using a menu in software instead of a short cut key. I’m sure you cringe when people use a menu for a shortcut key that you keep near and dear to the tips of you fingers. I know I do. But, I can’t blame them, they usually don’t use the tools I use with the same frequency. They may do something once a month that I do ten times an hour.

For them, success is all that matters. Choosing Edit -> Copy and then Edit -> Paste from menus is perfectly fine for their needs. They have a goal in mind and efficiency would only add confusion to a mind that isn’t engineered to handle more than a few things at a time.

In fact, efficiency can derail success. I know from personal experience trying to explain to someone that simply needs to get pictures off of their camera. When I start talking about Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V for copy and past respectively, I always lose them, and it takes a few minutes for both of us to remember that we were simply trying to copy pictures off of the camera.

So for regular users, it’s long been considered good advice to make things obvious for them. The tasks they’ll need, should be obvious, not necessarily efficient. It’s great if you can make it obvious and efficient, but you can’t make it efficient at the expense of obvious, or they’ll never find out how to copy their pictures.

But we also shouldn’t neglect power users. Those that perform actions ten times an hour instead of once a month. In this situation, I’ve heard advice to make it obvious how they can become more efficient. Perhaps showing a short cut key in a menu.

But, I also know even if a power user uses a menu, they do it subconsciously. They won’t necessarily notice the short cut key. That’s another thing about our mind, we tend to go into auto pilot when performing tasks that we already know really well.

Instead of showing a shortcut, what if software could monitor what we do and how we do it. At least for really routine things, like using menus that have a corresponding short cut. And then for the most frequently executed actions, actually interrupt power users and tell them there’s a better way. So, if a person used Edit -> Copy for the 50th time in a single day, the copy action would popup an irregular, random notification that they should try the shortcut Ctrl + C instead. Or, because users may be in the habit of ignoring popups, how about flashing the short cut key or vibrating it on screen to draw attention to it?

How about doing something to say, hey power user, I can help you make your life better. Of course it would be nice to disable these suggestions too, and they absolutely cannot be aggressive. Realistically we can only be expected to learn one short cut at a time. Software would need to monitor our progress and help us stay on track to learn the most important short cut first. And then once we master it, help us move on to the next.