Intuitive? Perhaps not

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In the worlds of ergonomics and user experience design it seems that one of the most desirable of all outcomes – the golden ideal – is to conjure up a solution that, while it may be novel in concept to new users, is nevertheless rapidly and painlessly understood and absorbed by novitiates when encountered for the first time. This is especially true in areas where there is a strong commercial or life-threatening imperative. Such ideal solutions are not uncommonly described as ‘intuitive’. But are they intuitive? Really? Indeed, is it ever even possible to design any truly intuitive interface at all? (Incidentally, shouldn’t that be ‘intuitable’?)

The OED defines intuition as, “the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason”. In plain terms, intuition means that people ‘just get it’, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. In the context of application interface design, any strict interpretation of this definition would seem to imply that practically any reasonably functioning person could be placed in front of some popular computer application interface that is widely held to be ‘intuitive’ and – let us say – despite having no prior experience of computers at all would quickly work out how to use it ‘without inference or use of reason’. Manifestly, the chances of this actually happening are probably going to be confined to the vanishingly thin extreme end of a probability bell curve labelled, ‘miraculously unlikely’.

Any protest that goes along the lines that such an example is unreasonable (because of the subject’s complete lack of experience with computers per se) is logically contradictory and powerfully self-defeating. Either a thing is intuitive (ie, one simply ‘gets it’) or it is not. If someone who has never used a computer before can rapidly use it at first sight then that would appear to be an intuitive act; even more so if lots of such people could pull off the same trick. If (as is more likely), a person does not intuit how a computer works because she or he has never used one before then what is lacking is not some intuitive insight – quite the opposite. Crucially, what is lacking here are the very things that intuition has, by definition, no requirement for at all – prior knowledge, familiarity and direct, hard-won experience.

Demonstrably, intuition and intuitive insight have no part in the process at all. It’s a theme I’ll aim to pick up on further.