The Return of the Intuitive

For the past few days I’ve been tinkering with Apple’s new GarageBand for iPad, and I’m impressed. I’ve been using GarageBand for years, and it’s a great way to quickly get some ideas down that can later be turned into actual songs (or not). Really, it’s just kind of fun. But on the iPad it’s a whole different beast, because on the iPad the device seems to almost disappear, and for the first time, recording on a “computer” doesn’t really feel like recording on a computer.

Twelve years ago, Brian Eno wrote an essay for Wired Magazine called “The Revenge of the Intuitive,” in which he detailed his frustrations with computer-based recording studios. He observed that “music-making tasks once requiring a single physical switch now require a several-step mental negotiation” and complained of “a new layer of bureaucracy [that] has interposed itself between me and the music we want to make.”

I remember those years fondly, although I was avoiding those newfangled studios like the plague, mostly because I couldn’t possibly afford to be in one of them. My instrument of choice was a Tascam Portastudio 424, a beast so awful-sounding that it was actually capable of covering up how bad the music was that I was making. It was my most valuable piece of musical equipment for many years, and it certainly outlasted any computer I’ve ever owned.

The best part, of course, was the comfort and familiarity I felt with the thing. You just plugged something in and hit record, and it usually sounded pretty decent. There were a finite number of knobs and sliders, and each one only did a single task. In order to change the volume of a track, you reached down and moved a slider. You didn’t use a mouse, and you were looking directly at the control you were changing, rather than at a display several feet away.

This passage from Eno’s essay is particularly prescient, and feels as though it could have been written about Apple or the iPad.

Software options proliferate extremely easily, too easily in fact, because too many options create tools that can’t ever be used intuitively. Intuitive actions confine the detail work to a dedicated part of the brain, leaving the rest of one’s mind free to respond with attention and sensitivity to the changing texture of the moment. With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users – when given a choice – prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can’t have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else.

Perhaps it took Apple to make this happen. They make the hardware, and they make the software, and while the software is feature-filled, you don’t need a manual to use it. Keep it simple, and keep it familiar, and those who use it will be happier and more productive.