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Fabricio Teixeira for UX Collective

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What “intuitive” really means

Photo by James Sutton

Once in a while I stumble upon a design document that has the word “intuitive” in it. It might be in a new project brief, or a requirements document that begs that “the experience needs to be intuitive and best-in-class for our users.” It might be found within a company’s design principles playbook, sitting somewhere near the word “delightful” and leaving as much room for interpretation as possible.

The problem with the word “Intuitive” is that it means different things for different people: a product that is intuitive to me, might not be intuitive to my father.

No one writes the i-word down because they are naive, or because they don’t mean good. They write it as a reminder of how important it is that, throughout the design process, the simplicity of the experience gets prioritized over less important things.

Until deadlines come closer and business KPIs become more aggressive, of course.

Intuitive shouldn’t be a design goal

Have you seen any product requirement doc that specifically outlines that a certain product should not be intuitive?

As a client or business stakeholder, ease of use is a barebones expectation of any product. Anything that is not intuitive to use might affect conversion rates, level of engagement, and any other metric that makes the product logically viable.

As a designer, ease of use should be a quality of your work — and not a feature that you plug in or out of your designs.

Breaking down the meaning of intuitive

The problem with the word “intuitive” is that it means different things for different people: a product that is intuitive to me, might not be intuitive to my father.

Finding something intuitive depends on too many factors for designers to be able to standardize what the term really means: the user’s age, sex and gender, cultural background, technology savviness, past experiences with similar products — and the list goes on.

Broadly, intuitive just means easy to use.

But if you look deeper into what people really mean when they start outlining examples of experiences that “feel intuitive”, you end up with a pretty foundational set of design principles that should sound very familiar if you are a UX or UI designer:

  • Visibility: are important elements visible on the screen? The more visible an element is, the more likely users will know about them and how to use them.
  • Feedback: once the user takes action, is it clear to them what action has been taken and what has been accomplished by that action?
  • Constraints: does the interface limit the set of actions that can be taken by the user? Endless possibilities often leave the user confused.
  • Affordances: does the design help people understand how to interact with certain elements? Affordances are all about giving users “clues” of how each component works.
  • Discoverability: is it possible to figure out how to use an object by interacting with it?
  • Orientation: does the user know where they are within the product structure at any given point in time? Do they know how to move back, and to move forward?
  • Expectation: does the outcome of an action align with the expectation users had about what the result would be, before taking that action?
  • Efficiency: is the product efficient in helping users accomplish a task? Is there room for increased efficiency, shorter flows, or quicker results?

For more on the topic, check out Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things — mandatory reading for any digital designer out there.

Hopefully, the next time the word “intuitive” comes up in a conversation, you’ll be more informed to help break down what the other person really meant.

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