Intuitive Interfaces? No Such Thing

The way interface designers use the word “intuitive” has never set well with me. It’s a good way to get people to know why an interface works well, but it’s inaccurate. Over on Johnny Holland, Vicky Tenacki writes:

Digital devices can never be inherently ‘intuitive’, as the fact that they deal in abstraction automatically means that actions must be arbitrary. (An aside: for those who argue that much of gestural and time based interactions are intuitive, remember that this assumes a Western way of looking at space and time. Anthropologists would tell you that there are other ways.) In other words, interfaces aren’t ‘intuitive’, they’re ‘intuited’: before that, there’s nothing ‘intuitive’ about them at all.

Agreed. I don’t think we should stop using the word, but it’s worth pausing once in a while to recognize that the most “intuitive” interfaces only seem so because they adhere to (or successfully predict) a set of conventions and expectations and behaviors.

When you get as close to cognitive psychology as interface designers should, “intuition” takes on a technical meaning: immediate knowledge that comes from someplace besides conscious reasoning, however much the process might seem conscious to the subject. (That conscious / unconscious contradiction helps explain, among other things, the most effective American politics of the last half-century and the human compulsion to believe in the supernatural.)

When we call an interface “intuitive,” though, we really mean that it’s easy to figure out. That’s a very different claim about the brains and bodies we’re discussing.

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