Even less intuitive

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In a previous post I opined, more or less, that in design specialisms such as interface design, for example, any quest for some sort of universally intuitive solution is unequivocally doomed to failure. The reason for this, I argued, is that before any user of interface-driven devices  can get to grips with them they must, of necessity, call upon techniques, schemas and processes that they’ve learned, acquired or become familiar with in past engagements with similar – or even not so similar – devices. In short, users call upon experience and familiarity when faced with new interface challenges; intuition – “the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason [1]”  – has no part to play in the process at all. Should past experience be of no use in unlocking the mysteries of a new device, then the user has no other option than to try to fathom the underlying working principles from scratch.

If users of new devices can get to grips with them quickly and efficiently then it will have nothing whatsoever to do with some near-supernatural process of intuitive insight but rather the result of being able to bring a wealth of experience and familiarity of other systems to bear on the situation. This adaptive strategy – predicated on hard-won experience – in combination with a willingness to engage in a suck-it-see approach can quickly or eventually lead nascent users of novel devices to a position of useful functioning effectiveness. So why do designers persist in burdening themselves – and their clients – with the challenge of seeking some chimeric impossibility while at the same time condemning some end users to a frustrated and unproductive engagement with the fruits of their efforts? The invidious double-whammy for those users who don’t ‘get it’ is that not only can they not use the device but they are made to feel stupid because they can’t engage with something that they are told is so ‘intuitive’.

I’ve come to think that the root of the problem lies with slack etymology. If one were to substitute the word, ‘familiar’ for ‘intuitive’ then pretty much all of the vagueness and unnecessary academic contortions that surround the issue of ‘intuitive’ design disappears. When people are able to get to grips with new devices quickly it is because the interface draws upon much that the user is already familiar with. Conversely, where users are unable to fathom a new device it’s because it draws upon little that the user is familiar with. Suddenly, the sticking points and barriers to a user’s functional, competent engagement with objects become much easier to identify because they can be measured against the expected range of experience and familiar skillsets that the intended user was assumed to possess when evaluated right at the initial design and testing stages. Where there is a significant mismatch between the expectations of a what an end user is assumed to be able to bring to the party and the reality of the end-users’ actual reservoirs of familiarity, then therein lies the fault-line that will trigger user frustration.

Leaving aside the grammatical connotations of using  ‘intuitive’ rather than ‘intuitable’, my argument here about the difficulty of using ‘intuitive’ is that the word itself is subject to so much misunderstanding and confusion about meaning that to use it as some arbiter of design success is an exercise in futility of the most pointless order. A quick survey of the literature that touches upon the notion of intuition frequently mentions the difficulty of defining it. A telling example comes from a paper entitled Investigating Familiarity in Older Adults to Facilitate Intuitive Interaction:

“One way of improving the usability and interaction of contemporary devices is to ensure the user interfaces are intuitive to use. There is no concrete definition of intuition.” [my emphasis][2]

This bizarre academic posturing is nonsensical at every level. Firstly, its assertion that there is no concrete definition of intuition is plain, factually wrong. The OED has produced a succinct and perfectly clear definition of intuition -“the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason”. That aside, even were Lawry et al’s assertion true, then we have the ludicrous position whereby the claim is that user interfaces can be improved by making them more ‘intuitive’ but, since we don’t know what ‘intuitive’ means how is it even possible to test the hypothesis? It’s a bit like saying, measure this object with this standard that we can’t define.

Why Lawry et al didn’t think to refer to a standard authority on the meaning of words via a dictionary is not clear, but what’s more surprising is that they turned instead to one of the paper’s co-authors, Blackler [3], who also doesn’t know what intuition means, and in doing so tie themselves up in a tautological knot that turns the whole issue into a mess:

“”It is important to make a distinction between intuition and intuitive interaction. Intuition is a cognitive process, while intuitive interaction is the use of intuition during an interaction with a product. Blackler states the following definition:”
“Intuitive use of products involves utilising knowledge gained through other experience(s) (e.g. use of another product or something else). Intuitive interaction is fast and generally non-conscious, so that people would often be unable to explain how they made their decisions during intuitive interaction” “[3]

Blackler’s definition is not a definition of intuition. It is, however, in its character, rather closer to a description of  something like ‘discernible understanding’, which embraces notions of ‘experience’ and ‘familiarity’ and ‘tacit knowledge’.

Blackler’s use of the word intuition is not helpful here. While recognising the role of ‘knowledge gained through other experiences’ Blacker’s account focuses on users who can successfully interact with a device but who are unable to objectively describe how they do so. What it doesn’t address is those users who can’t engage with a device. The unspoken contention appears to be that such users lack an ‘intuitive’ insight when the pragmatic reality is that they possess an unfitting background of tacitly acquired skills that, while they might be useful in other circumstances, can’t profitably be brought to bear on the particular situation in hand. And under Blackler’s explanation, by extension, the fault appears to lie with the user rather than the designer.

If designers and creative thinkers really are to get to grips with the issue of making user interfaces more effective then it’s time to start discussing the debate in terms that actually make sense. In a future article I hope to question why intuitable design solutions may not even be always desirable in all cases.


2 Lawry, S., Popovic. V., Blackler, A.(2009) Investigating Familiarity in Older Adults to Facilitate Intuitive Interaction Queensland University of Technology, School of Design, Australia

3 Blackler, A. (2008) Intuitive interaction with complex artefacts: Emperically-based research, Ed., VDM Verlag, Saarbrücken, Germany.