This is based on my empirical studies on processes of learning, and as such I do not claim them to be truths which would apply to each differing individual. What I have learned from teaching myself programs like After Effects, 3DS Max and it’s proprietary plugins like FumeFX and Krakatoa for fluid-simulations, there seems to be a two categories roughly at how the learning process evolves over time as the user achieves more experience.
First stage: guided learning
When beginning with a new program or plug-in, and when the interface is all new and no further knowledge exist in the user’s mind in the programs usage, the usage is very restricted. Mostly performing actions learned from others or from tutorials, which usually are simply procedures following a chain of commands to achieve a desired result with none to less variation in the outcome, for at this stage the user do not have enough knowledge to divert actions too much from the learned path, or confusion on the other parameters and components may obliterate the goal of final result. Though this experimenting is important in building the knowledge of the program to the stage where the usage becomes intuitive.
When enough experience has been gained, the mind compiles the experiences into an schematic of the software, and then the inner logic and the relations between all the different parameters and components are realized. This is where the real learning starts, when user experiences with different parameters while achieving meaningful results, building new methods of doing things and using the program to higher potential.