Vincent Gable’s Blog

May 18, 2008

Intuitive Considered Harmful

Filed under: Accessibility,Design,Programming,Quotes,Research,Usability | ,
― Vincent Gable on May 18, 2008

the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

“Intuitive” sounds like a great property for an interface to have, but in The Humane Interface (pages 150-152), Jeff Raskin calls it a harmful distraction:

Many interface requirements specify that the resulting product be intuitive, or natural. However, there is no human faculty of intuition…When an expert uses what we commonly call his intuition to make a judgment … we find that he has based his judgment on his experience and knowledge. Often, experts have learned to use methods and techniques that non-experts do not know… Expertise, unlike intuition, is real.

When users say that in interface is intuitive, they mean that it operates just like some other software or method with which they are familiar.

Another word that I try to avoid in discussing interfaces is ‘natural’. Like ‘intuitive’, it is usually not defined. An interface feature is natural, in common parlance, if it operates in such a way that a human needs no instruction. This typically means that there is some common human activity that is similar to the way the feature works. However, it is difficult to pin down what is meant by ‘similar’. … the term ‘natural’ (can also equate) to ‘very easily learned’. Although it may be impossible to quantify naturalness, it is not to difficult to quantify learning time.

The belief that interfaces can be intuitive and natural is often detrimental to improved interface design. As a consultant, I am frequently asked to design a “better” interface to a product. Usually, an interface can be designed such that, in terms of learning time, eventual speed of operation (productivity), decreased error rates, and ease of implementation, it is superior to both the client’s existing products and competing products. Nonetheless, even when my proposals are seen as significant improvements, they are often rejected on the grounds that they are not intuitive. It is a classic Catch-22: The client wants something that is sigificantly superior to the competition. But if it is to be superior, it must be different. (Typically, the greater the improvement, the greater the difference.) Therefore, it cannot be intuitive, that is, familiar. What the client wants is an interface with at most marginal differences from current practice — which almost inevitably is Microsoft Windows — that, somehow, makes a major improvement.

There are situations where familiarity is the most important concern, but they are rare. One example is a kiosk at a tourist attraction. Millions of people will use it only once, and they must be able to use it as soon as they touch it (because they will walk away rather then spend their vacation reading a manual). And in such cases, mimicking the most promiscuously used interface you can find, warts and all, makes sense — if that means more people will already know how to use it.

Outside of rare exceptions, software that people use enough to justify buying is used repeatedly. The value of the product is what people make with it, not what they can do with it the moment they open the box. Designing for the illusion of “intuitiveness” is clearly the wrong choice when it harms the long-term usefulness of the product.

This is not an excuse for a crappy first-run experience! The first impression is still the most important impression. By definition, the less familiar something is, the more exceptional it is. And an exceptionally good first impression is what you are after — so unfamiliarity can work to your advantage here. It is more work to design an exceptional first-run experience, but good design is always more work.

This is not a rational for being different just to be different. It is a rational for being different, when different is measurably better. For something to be measurably better, it first needs to be measurable. That means using precise terms, like “familiar” instead of “intuitive”, and “quick to learn” not “natural”.

1 Comment »

  1. Jeff Raskin’s comments apply to a vast variety of human enterprises. In the one that I’m most familiar with–advertising and public relations–the client often wants you to come up with “something wildly creative,” “something we’ve never done.” It’s almost always a mistake to take him at his word. He THINKS he means it, but what he REALLY wantsis something just like what’s already in place, except tweaked a ilttle. Even if what he’s got is crap, at least it’s familiar crap (i.e. the devil we know). If the crap works okay, that is, if it sells the product, he’s afraid to touch it. (I’m talking mainly now of corporate situations. Smaller, enterpreneural operations are much more open to innovation.) I can’t tell you how many hours & hours I’ve wasted designing ingenious, original proposals that sank on the iceberg of clident timidity. — BTW, are you familiar with the origin of “Catch 22?” It’s a comic novel about an American bomber squadron in WWII. Official Air Force policy is that once a pilot–or crew member–has flown a certain number of missions (let’s say, thirty), they are eligible to be rotated to desk duty or something similar that is not life threatening. The idea is that the American Armed Forces don’t expect a soldier to continue risking his life until the law of averages catches up with him. A humane policy and also one that prevents mass desertion. However, in the novel, Colonel Cathcart, who is runnng the squadron, is anxious to make General and the best way to do that is to prove the superiorty and killing efficidency of his command. And the best way to do that is to keep his most experienced flyers (i.e. the ones that are still alive) doing bombing misssions. So he raises the number of required missions from thirty to forty, then from forty to fifty and so on. Yossarian, the hero, is “a coward who has flown fifty-five bombing missions and is just as cowardly afraid to die as the first cowardly mission he flew where he witnessed the cowards in three other cowardly bombers dive to earth in cowardly flames.” Yossarian has become so deranged by the impending probability of his death that he wears his flak jacket all the time, even when he sleeps. His irrational behavior has him reported to the squadron physician, Doc Daneeka, who gives him a psychiatric test. Doc Daneeka reviews the test and tells Yossarian that he’s insane, a classic paranoid who believes that complete strangers are trying to kill him. Yossaran replies that complete strangers ARE trying to kill him. “When?” asks Doc Daneeka. “Everytime I drop bombs on them,” Yossarian replies. “But that’s not personal.” says Doc Daneeka. “It’s about as personal as you can get.” says Yossarian. “If that’s what you believe,” says Doc Daneeka, “then you qualify as insane by Clause 7 of the Offical Army Air Force Medical Guide and you’re disqualified from flying further missions because you pose a threat to yourself and your crew.” Yossarian heaves a sigh of relief. “Then I don’t have to fly any more missions?” Doc Daneeka shrugs and says, “No, as a matter of fact you do, because Catch-22 of Clause 7 says that fear of being blown out of the sky is a rational fear and therefore not insane.” Yossarian zips up his flak jacket. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” Doc Daneeka nods. “It’s classic. It’s the best catch there is.”

    Comment by Ernie — June 21, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

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