The Problem With Intuition In Digital Design

Illustration by Chiara Marchiori

What is intuition?

“Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect” - Steve Jobs

Intuition lets us make decisions about what we think might be the right or wrong thing to do in a given situation. It can fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what might happen in the future. One way intuition manifests itself is in the “eye” that visual creatives are sometimes said to have; that is, the ability to identify and discern visual elements such as composition, layout and colour choice that “just seem to work”. An explanation of why a specific hue of colour is chosen above another is likely to involve talking about a feeling, that the person in question just “feels” something works visually better than something else. This feeling is intuition.

However, intuition is not simply guesswork. To every creative decision, the designer brings all their previous experience, all the failures and successes, as well as all the experiments. Therefore whilst intuition is grounded in reality, it cannot be quantified or explained with numbers. This means it is possible, and even likely, that one person’s intuition will lead them to a decision that is at odds with someone else’s. In situations like this we can go with the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), or we can lean on research and numbers to back up our intuition. The trouble is, the more we look to the numbers to help make our decisions, the less we use our intuition.

Measuring experience

UX is more reliant on numbers than other fields/disciplines. The term UX itself is not as well defined as most others in design, and the job is equally ill defined. As we are talking about an experience, we look to numbers to quantify and rate. This manifests itself in metrics such as click-through rates, which all try to put a qualitative number on things like “engagement” and “experience”. The problem is that we cannot quantify intuition in the same way, which makes it hard to side with in the face of the perceived authority of measurable statistics.

Ask the numbers

An example of intuition and subjectivity coming up against hard numbers can be found in an anecdote about Marissa Mayer (current CEO of Yahoo!, then an executive at Google) and her oversight of the design of Google’s results page, in this case a toolbar. A designer had picked a blue for the links, whilst a product manager for a different page had found through testing that users were more likely to click links if they were a greener shade. Mayer initially chose a shade halfway between the two, but then asked the team to test the 41 shades between the competing blues.

Whilst this could be seen as excessive, Google has since claimed that this decision alone may have accounted for an extra $200 million a year in revenue. One could say this is one example where going with the numbers clearly trumped intuition, however if the same approach continues to proliferate throughout the design industry then we may come up against significant issues, because the vast majority of design decisions have very little in common with this example. Most of the time these decisions exist as one of many, with each one having far less scope for impact, and so spending so much time and money on them would simply be impractical. This approach would also fundamentally change what it means to be a designer and in some cases, whether the role of a designer is even necessary.

This can be a positive change. The increasing sophistication of website building services such as Wix and Squarespace has meant a functional and presentable website is now within reach for far more people than even as recently as five years ago. This is partly down to the services handling some of the more technical aspects like hosting, but also because of their wide range of templates. These allow the user to very quickly have a modern, presentable website without having made many design decisions.

We can see this being taken to the next level with the increasing use of artificial intelligence to make design-related decisions. There are smaller examples of this such as the iPhone Camera app suggesting to you the “best” photo in a burst sequence, or Google Photos’ Auto Enhance feature tweaking photos without any input from the user. However a much more ambitious example is that of The Grid, a website builder claiming to take a user’s content and apply AI, algorithms and machine learning to build a website. Leigh Taylor, The Grid’s creative director, says “the designers are in-the-loop with the AI… they interact with it, guide it, influence it to shape a framework of design that facilitates multiple user cases beyond what is feasible with just two hands”. While this suggests the human designer still has a role in the process, the end goal for such a system is surely to become sophisticated enough to not need a designer’s input. This could exacerbate the current issues we are seeing with the homogenisation of web design.

Force of habit

Intuition also plays a large part on the other side of design; that is, in how a user experiences a product or service. If UX designers were asked to think of the qualities that indicate a successful product or service, amongst the most common would surely be “intuitive”. For a design to be regarded as intuitive is almost the highest praise it can receive.

However, so much of what we regard as intuitive is actually just learned behaviour. Just as the designer’s intuition is the sum of their previous experience, so too the user’s intuition is formed by their experiences. There is no inherent understanding of how digital products work, only habits that have built up through frequent repetition.

Often, what we describe as “good” design is something which adheres to “best practice”, or rather something that does things in the way users are accustomed to, which makes it intuitive. In user experience design, confusing users is anathema, so choosing to do things in a new or different way is avoided strenuously.

The problem with striving for good by always adhering to the status quo is that this precludes the possibility of creating something better.

This behaviour isn’t set in stone, and is able to adapt at the same pace that technology develops. As designers of the products people will use, we influence these learned behaviours. By concentrating less on what we currently define as best practice or intuitive, and placing more trust in our own intuition as designers, we might be more able to create better experiences for users.

One issue we are seeing so often in design is the reaction of the design community and the wider public to change. It can seem like whenever a piece of design undergoes a change these days, there is almost always a negative reaction. We see this most frequently with rebrandings and with website redesigns. The most recent outcry has been against the new Instagram logo, but we have seen this before with even smaller changes such as Spotify changing the shade of their brand green. It can be argued that some of the backlash has sound foundations, and indeed one can find rational critique of these changes, but there is clearly a portion of backlash that will always be present, because it stems simply from our gut reaction to any and all change.

This instinctive negative reaction to change seems to be amplified by how familiar uses are with whatever is being replaced/changed. An example of this is Facebook, which is used multiple times a day by millions of people. Whenever they have introduced changes in the past, there has almost always been a backlash, however this quickly subsides and whatever changes are introduced become the new status quo. Users adapt, new behaviour is learned. A step is taken towards establishing a new “best practice” and the idea of what is and isn’t intuitive is subtly changed.

By embracing the shifting nature of what it means for a design to be intuitive, and by acknowledging that we are responsible for using our own intuition to challenge the status quo of best practice, designers will be better equipped to provide solutions which are not only innovative but a true improvement on what came before.

Julian is a digital designer for Make it Clear. We improve digital interactions between organisations and their users. Achieving great results through strategic planning, well structured user experiences and excellent user interface design.

www.makeitclear.co.uk