Nothing is Intuitive

“We need to make it more intuitive”
“That’s not intuitive”
“Our primary goal is that it be intuitive”

…stop. Please.

Almost every design discussion I’ve had lately has had one of these quotes. I hear it from clients, large corporations, key stakeholders, developers, other designers, managers, interns, and ESPECIALLY entrepreneurs.

But why?

That’s rhetorical. Of course I get it. We all want to make products that are adopted immediately by the hyper-specific target audiences that we’ve identified during exhaustive research. We posit that if said user comes in contact with our product, they need to immediately know how to use it, what its purpose is, understand every icon, the metaphor of each drop shadow, information architecture, and the very SOUL of a product upon contact. If they don’t, we say, they’ll smash their phones or laptops into the nearest hard object out of a hulk-like frustration, eyes thick with rage, and begin decrying the reputation of the company that would make such an abomination of an experience. That, or worse… they’ll uninstall your app. *GASP*

Let me just cut to the chase. Nothing is intuitive, and I’d venture so far to say that not everything should be.

I know what you’re thinking, you’ve used apps that you understood how to use from the start. That’s the definition of “intuitive”, isn’t it? Well, sure, but who are you?

The problem is one of subjectivity. Your intuition is not the same as mine and neither of ours are the same as anyone else’s. So how can we rely on it for a benchmark of success or viability?

Have you used a new iPhone? No? Well then it’s 3D touch is not going to be intuitive for you. No other phones or operating systems (for now) will respond to an increase in touch pressure, so what basis do we have for that behavior?

Another example:

Photo credit: Yahoo

Have you ever used an Amazon Echo? If not, there’s literally nothing about a black cylinder that says “call me Alexa”. It it’s intuitive for you, then you might be dealing with some other issues…

Neither 3D touch or the Amazon echo are intuitive, but they’ve been hugely successful. How? Why didn’t their unintuitive nature send throngs of consumers screaming to the competition?

Both 3D touch and the Amazon Alexa are great advances in human computer interaction. One removes the interface completely, and the other adds a whole level of dimension to the interface itself. They both are necessary strides in the journey from bright slabs of glass to truly physical objects that react to our senses in the way that the rest of our world does. But they are not the same as anything else and therefore not intuitive. They’re a huge risk.

Alexa could come inside of a box that has all of its commands written out for users, but how would that make it more like talking to a person? It wouldn’t be a conversational interface, it would be just another cold, dark, command line sitting on your table. The fact that it’s not obvious what you can say to it actually encourages people to try different things, similar to how you would with an actual person. After all, you don’t know how someone will react until you ask, right?

In the same way 3D touch could have “press harder” icons scattered throughout iOS, telling people where they can and can’t push, but what real-world object has cues like that?

Photo credit: Fast Company

Do you know how hard you can squeeze an egg without crushing it just by looking? Do you know the pressure that’s just right for a handshake without feeling how others do it first? I think that Apple has intentionally taken the path of not making it obvious so that developers can experiment with how it’s used with no guidance. The first reaction was to make it like a right click, but what else can it do? I’m sure we’ll start to see more ideas with the launch of iOS10; many of which will probably be unintuitive at first.

If we only rely on initial impressions or what our users guess a product is supposed to do, we run the risk of, well, not taking risks. Big ideas will take hints, misunderstandings, and aha moments. “I don’t get it” is not a death sentence, it’s an opportunity to instruct in the product. The products that I love (I know, I’m just one person) are the ones that seemed like a mystery at first interaction. I’d argue that we should explain less (but not nothing) to our users at first so that they can explore it for themselves.

You may call me idealistic or even naive, and I know the stigma that users are mostly cattle to be prodded for revenue, but I think people actually want to learn things and feel pride that they figured it out.

Just because something isn’t immediately intuitive, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good design. My main guff here isn’t that people are pushing for things to work as users expect, and I’m just a grumpy contrarian; my main issue with the whole intuitive thing is that we are expecting users to understand something seemingly by osmosis. If they have to be told what something is, or they have to use a feature in order to understand it, it’s a failure. We’re told that they need to absorb the comprehension from the ether and if they don’t, it should be sent back to the drawing board.

Let me try to relate this idea to cooking: (I watched both seasons of Chef’s Table, so of course I’m a total expert in all things culinary)

Alinea Chicago: The tomato shaped thing is a strawberry puree, the strawberry shaped thing is a tomato.

The best restaurants in the world don’t give people food that they would have thought of themselves. The practice of introducing unexpected flavors into a meal at just the right moment is a crucial part of the experience. They lure you in with something small that you may have seen, tasted, or smelled before, and then blow you away with something outside of what you could have ever expected.

Intuition will only get our users so far. At some point we’ll all have to admit that relying on preconceptions and previous experiences is not good enough. Design is about finding order in information chaos, and sometimes the best order isn’t intuitive. Our job as designers is to find out where our users are getting confused and teach them a better way.

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