Intuition is experience, not magic

in design

You don’t have to go very deep into interaction design to find a lot of people throwing around the word “intuitive.” A lot of people talk about the importance of intuitiveness as a design goal, and praise particular products for being intuitive. Search Boxes and Arrows for the word “intuitive” and all kinds of examples come up. What hardly anyone talks about is what they mean by “intuitive.” There’s a kind of general understanding of that as “easy to use/figure out,” someone can sit down and start to use the interface without any special training or guidance, and this is regarded as a good thing.

But at one point when I was pretty fed up with empty praise for “intuitive” interfaces without any real analysis of a design, and armed with Jeffrey Bardzell’s admonitions that meaning does not exist in things, but in people, I started thinking more about this whole “intuitive” business and becoming more dissatisfied with it. Because, of course, objects are not inherently “intuitive” all by themselves, sitting in a vacuum of objective analysis. Intuitiveness, like meaning, lies in people, not products. Because when you get down to it, all “intuitive” means is “familiar.” I don’t have to learn anything new with an interface when it relies entirely on things I’ve already learned. And sure, sometimes that’s a good thing. But sometimes it’s not. And of course when I was doing my blogger homework for this post I found that Jef Raskin said it all better than me 15 years ago, or else this post might have been quite a bit longer.

I do have some more thoughts on the term that Raskin doesn’t cover in that article, though. For one thing, the use of “intuitive” like it’s a property a designer can give a thing through their own skill and that it will have forever, masks the central importance of the user’s experience to the concept. And for a discipline that claims to be human-centered, that’s maybe not the best thing for a popular and important term to do. Which is not to say that everyone who’s used the term has forgotten that they’re tailoring a product to their users, or that using it is a sign you’re not being “human-centered” enough, or whatever. Anyone who is doing user research as part of a design process is presumably aware that they need to target a particular group of people with particular experience and abilities. But it can be easy to get careless and stop paying enough attention to those particulars when you say “I want this product to be intuitive” or “It’s not intuitive enough.”

But we all understand the concept of “familiar” to be rooted in a specific person’s experience. You can’t just say “this thing is familiar” and expect anyone to believe that the object in question has this inherent quality of familiarity. The implication is that the thing is familiar to you, and if that’s not what you meant, it immediately raises questions: familiar to whom? under what circumstances? These questions are always important to a user-centered design, and speaking in terms of familiarity rather than intuitiveness keeps the importance of the user explicit.