Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The End of Intuitive

We all want our interfaces to be intuitive, don't we? Sounds good to me. I know I've used this word in the past when passing judgment on a user interface: "I'm confused by the interface... it's just not intuitive."

To intuitively understand something means it is understood without prior exposure to the subject, without requiring a learning process, and without using rational thought. Running away from a bear in the woods: intuition, fight or flight. Drinking water from a lake: not intuition, prior experience with lakes teaches you to expect water. Shaking a coconut, realizing there is milk inside, smashing it and drinking it: not intuition, you inferred liquid from rationally thinking about the sound it made. Operating any user interface that requires a keyboard or mouse: not intuitive by any stretch of the definition. Somewhere, someone taught you how these things worked. So sorry, your cool new interface that passed usability testing with flying colors is not intuitive.

Your user interface might be familiar, and this is good because it reduces the learning curve of users who have already been trained in something similar.

Or your user interface might be easily habituated, and this is good because repeated use will increase the user's productivity and operation time.

But ease of use and speed of learning are certainly not the same thing as intuitiveness. As Jef Raskin points out in "The Humane Interface", "The mouse is very easy to learn... [It's] fast and easy, but it is neither intuitive or natural. No artifact is."

What you can do is make an interface self-teaching, meaning the user can always find proper explanations and instructions when they are needed.

So from here on, I pledge to stop saying "intuitive" when it comes to interfaces. Instead I'll stick with "familiar", "self-teaching", and "easily habituated".

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE TOPIC... I often hear people say their co-workers are idiots. The word idiot traditionally, specifically describes people with an IQ of 0-25. It is one step below imbecile (26-50), and two below moron (51-70). Here is a handy table for comparison:

TermIQ Range
Moron 51-70
Imbecile 26-50
Idiot 0-25

True idiots are as rare as the true genius. While it might be possible, however unlikely, that you work with a bunch of morons, it is almost unthinkably improbable that you work with a bunch of idiots. So from here on, I pledge to stop calling my co-workers of years past idiots, and instead will upgrade them to mere morons (I would never call any present co-workers either of course!).

Sadly, the work of Henry Goddard, who created this colorful scale of feeble-mindedness, is now politically incorrect, and since the turn of the century state governments have been moving to replace these terms with "mentally incompetent". This is discouraging for lovers of language, but at least we can take heart in the knowledge that at least 5 states do not allow idiots to vote. Surprisingly, none of those states voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election. Funny, I'd of thought it'd be the other way around.


Unknown said...

Brain imaging studies of both humans and other primates show changes in neurotransmission which occur as an adaptation to prolonged use of tools. In other words, the brain begins to recognize the tool or prosthetic limb as an extension (or replacement) of the hand and to respond and send commands accordingly. In none of your examples are you really talking about inborn reflexes. "Intuitive" is an approach to learning which is more random than systematic, more subconscious than conscious, but it is still learning. Perhaps those who describe their products as "intuitive" just mean that their manipulation is closer to natural human functioning. Your definition of "intuitive" is too restricted to encompass the full range of the term.

Hamlet D'Arcy said...

Those are true and good points. Debating the meaning of a word is folly in itself because words are defined by their popular usage anyway. The absurdity of this is shown by mockingly insisting that the term idiot only be used to refer in the context of it's psychological, and now defunct usage. The point of the post (for me) is that using the word "intuitive" is neither a realistic goal nor helpful feedback.

Walter Harley said...

Like flintcitylimit, I think your definition of "intuitive" is a straw man. An "intuitive" interface to me is one where my intuitions (which are, of course, partly due to my past experience) guide me in useful directions. An interface doesn't need to be intuitive to a time-traveling Neanderthal in order to meet the criterion.

To take the example of a mouse: it is not obvious that it does anything at all. But once you move it and observe that a cursor moves, intuition correctly guides that the motion of the cursor is isomorphic to the motion of the object in one's hand. Imagine, by contrast, an interface where moving the mouse caused the cursor to jump from field to field in some programmer-defined order.

Similarly, it's not immediately obvious that you can click on things. But once you discover that, an interface can help or hinder your ability to find things that are usefully clickable. Not intuitive: mouse-based interfaces where you can't identify what elements are clickable without hovering over them.

I think "intuitive" is still a useful concept. But if you want to get away from that word, another one you might consider is "discoverable".

Hamlet D'Arcy said...

@Walter Harley
Yes, of course it is a strawman. It is folly to insist that words have only one definition and that words can change meaning overtime. However, I don't think intuitive is useful goal or feedback for UI reviews and still don't.

I like your time-traveling Neanderthal example. In fact, that is probably closer to what Raskin defines intuition as. Raskin actually uses the example of a mouse as something that is _not_ intuitive. He relays some funny stories from his testing at PARC, and goes on to say that the Mouse is wonderful because it is easily learned. However, most people will intuitively pick it up and wave it in the air upon first encounter.

It's not my best blog effort, and my example of fight or flight is instinct, not intuition. Thanks everyone for the comments.