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15 December, 2004

Accurate or intuitive?

I seem to have posted about Firefox quite frequently recently.  That's not deliberate - I'm no evangelist.  This entry isn't really about specific software, except as examples of more general concepts.

This afternoon I helped a colleague install Firefox.  There was a problem importing items from the Internet Explorer 'Links' toolbar' to the Firefox equivalent, the 'Bookmarks' toolbar.  Once resolved, an interesting difference became obvious.
The user had numbered a few key items, from 1 to 12, so they'd appear in a specific order in the header toolbar rather than be lost in the overspill sidebar.  In IE, the order was as required: 1,2,3,4,... whereas in Firefox the order was 1,10,11,12,2,3,4,....
Strictly speaking, Firefox was more correct, but IE was more intuitive and met the user's requirements.

So, which is better: pedantically correct, or intuitive? I mean in general; I'm no longer talking about the numbers example. This is a fundamental design issue, which applies to everything from web pages to road signs.

Another example would be the issue of web standards compliance. IE is less compliant, but if it serves the needs of users better, does that matter? Should one adhere to strict standards simply for the sake of complying, or provide what people really want?

These are partly devil's advocate questions, of course. Personally I have no problem with the more accurate 1,10,11,... numbering (I'd have used 01,02,03..., which eliminates confusion), and loathe the 'helpful' attitude built into Microsoft products. For me, more accurate generally is more intuitive.

But (and this is an important point) that's just me. People differ, which makes design such an... interesting activity. Which should take priority - meeting current expectations, or educating towards imposed conditions? To rephrase: if standards are a valid concept at all, should they be set at the existing level of the majority, or at a 'best practice' level to which the majority can aspire?

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