Does All Design Need to be Intuitive?

“We need to change our platform. If I can’t figure it out, then nobody can. It’s not intuitive!”

In my previous job, I attended a meeting with the Head of Product and the design team. He had just tried a new product for the first time and, to put it lightly, was unhappy. To him, there was too much information, too many fields, and it all was needlessly complex.

“I know our platform is not a music app, but I want it to be intuitive like Spotify or Apple Music. Something beautiful that I can pick up, figure out, and that works.”

What he didn’t understand was that he wasn’t meant to figure out the platform or understand the data immediately. It was designed for expert analysts with 20+ years of engineering experience. Their work is highly complex and not something anyone can just “pick up.”

After getting to know the end-users, the design team understood that the analysts didn’t necessarily want the platform to be beautiful, hated any white space in the interface and wanted to fill it with more data. They didn’t need something that could be easily understood by anyone; they needed something that would simplify their workflow and make their job easier, even if it meant learning how to use it first.

Being experts who swam through data on a daily basis, navigation came easy for them. But for outsiders — like the Head of Product for my company — the information was foreign and far from intuitive.

The dictionary definition for intuitive UI is an interface in which users understand behavior and effect without use of reason, experimentation, assistance, or special training. Others define it as something that is familiar or that behaves as expected.

But what was happening here was a misunderstanding of the difference between intuitive and easy to use. While they are often mistaken as being the same thing, they are actually very different.

To further demonstrate why, take a look at this box.

How would you open it? Get a screwdriver, unscrew each screw, and open the box, right?

It takes time, but it is intuitive.

How would you open this box?

All of the obvious options don’t work. Not lifting, shaking, or prying with a screw driver.

The only way to open it is to hold the corner of the box with one hand and flick your wrist really hard so the lid would rotate open.

Not very intuitive, but once you’ve figured it out it’s pretty easy to use.

If opening boxes all day was your job, which box would you want? For frequent use, the box did not need to be intuitive. However, if you opened the second box enough times, the flicking motion could arguably become familiar and, eventually, intuitive.

10 years ago, did this symbol mean anything to you? It has no affordance for its function and before it became commonplace during the mobile revolution, the average person would not understand it’s meaning. This menu icon has several UX issues. It provides no affordance for its function, hides critical information in an area of the phone that is difficult to reach, and requires users to tap through multiple elements to reach a desired page. But now, this three-lined symbol is ubiquitous in UI design and is considered “intuitive.”

Depending on the product, user, and scenario, design does not always need to be intuitive. In enterprise software, functionality and efficiency trumps the need to make sure the user can immediately pick it up and use it with ease. After all, truly innovative products aren’t concerned with what’s current, but are instead concerned with setting precedents that often require new learning. So in addition to designing for what is intuitive today, design for the future.

Esther is a UX Designer for SAP’s Design & Co-Innovation Center.

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