The Sapir-WIMP hypothesis

Monday, 17 Dec 2007

Russell Beattie:

Spent the weekend remotely helping my parents get their new computer up and running. Vista is in general, I’d say, a better OS than Windows XP. But I think I’ve discovered the one true test of a GUIs [sic] usability:

How well can you walk someone through a set of tasks over the phone?

Reading that, it occurred to me:

We believe that conscious thought is a special form of speaking; at least, the two seem closely related. It would stand to reason, therefore, that when something is easier to articulate, it is also easier to think about. The canonical form of this idea is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis; and yes, that hypothesis is contentious. However, it seems indisputable that there is a correlation between how easy it is for us to express a thought and how easy it is to think it, whether it is a 1:1 mapping (which it obviously isn’t) or not. We don’t know just how this works, quite yet, but we know it can’t possibly be entirely wrong.

So if you were inclined to dismiss Russell’s postulation as a special-circumstance experience that might not have any useful bearing on how to design for usability in less constricting circumstances – because that was exactly my first impulse –, think again. Given the aforementioned observations about language and cognition, something more general seems to be going on. One might formulate:

The more easily you can talk about a user interface, the more easily you can understand how to manipulate it.

This is an oversimplification, just like the idea that there is a 1:1 mapping between availability of vocabulary and accessibility of thought, but it seems like a good guideline to keep in mind.