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What's intuition got to do with it?

Is our obsession to create 'intuitive' user interfaces masking a real need to design easy-to-learn interfaces? In a 2012 interview with Speigal International, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted how our systems of intuition and reasoning work together " System 1 represents what we may call intuition. It tirelessly provides us with quick impressions, intentions and feelings. System 2, on the other hand, represents reason, self-control and intelligence." (Kahneman, 2012)

Intuition versus learned behaviours
(original phonograph image: Norman Bruderhofer

The myth of intuitive design

We know from learning/developmental theorists like Piaget, Bandura and Bronfenbrenner that knowledge and learning are not innate (as described in John Locke's theory on the tabula rasa). Throughout our entire life-cycle we continue to grow and learn about the cultures and societies we exist within. Our understanding when we encounter something new is very much based on our knowledge of what has occurred before. Within our learning of new systems, social interactions, emotions, outcomes etc. we are heavily biased to compare new interactions with what we already know. 

Piaget's theory of adaptation (within learning and development) covered the two key areas of Assimilation and Accommodation. Assimilation is where we incorporate a newly learnt event or knowledge into an existing schema. Knowledge is assimilated within an existing concept, but may be skewed by the confines of the original ideas (i.e. the original concept is not modified when in conflict with new ideas). In contrast, Accommodation occurs when current concepts need to be modified if they are in conflict with new knowledge and ideas. In this way new learning and understanding are accommodated; old concepts are discarded or modified, and growth can occur within the individual.

The same argument could also be made for interaction design (IxD) and UI design. If we only look at an intuitive design approach, then we ignore the possibility of creating new interaction patterns (and new learned behaviours) that may be required to support the design

Limitations of intuitive design

If we look at definitions for intuitive, we find the following:

Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason. (Oxford English Dictionary)


Intuition is a priori knowledge or experiential belief characterized by its immediacy. (wikipedia)

So we could describe intuition as understanding something, without the use of reason or other thought processing activities - to instinctively just 'know'. But this still leaves me feeling like there is a part of our thought processing that remains unexplained when encountering new systems. Take for example the way we listen to music. Before 1877 (with the invention of the gramophone) the experience of listening to music occurred in concert halls, music chambers, within social settings, places of worship or at private recitals. Musical scores and songs were distributed via sheet music. With the invention of musical recordings we had records, cassette tapes, CD disks, right up to today's mpeg players and streamed web audio. Each technological advancement for recorded music required us to learn new ways of listening and distributing music. However, this evolution occurred in steps, with each advancement building on the last. Evolving technologies built, or even relied, upon prior knowledge that people had when listening to music.

So learned behaviours occurred when moving from 12-inch phonographic disks, to tape, to CD disks, to mpeg players. We had the concepts of play, stop or pause, fast-forward and rewind (introduced with tape). We learnt to understand these concepts; we learned the implicit actions or UI interactions needed to listen to music. It cannot have all been intuitive; some form of initial learning must have occurred with each evolution.

The problem with focusing on an 'intuitive' UI design is that it presents any effort required in 'learning' the UI as a negative. Intuition occurs within the limbic system - a complex set of interconnected structures within our brain that processes our emotions (including our arousal and 'fight or flight' responses). Emotional responses within the limbic system can occur without any higher cognitive or reasoning processing (that occurs within our cognitive cortex). This can, in some cases, lead to poor or emotionally-biased decision making. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes some failings of intuition as,

Our intuition works very well for the most part. But it's interesting to examine where it fails. In the stock market, for example, the predictions of experts are practically worthless. Anyone who wants to invest money is better off choosing index funds, which simply follow a certain stock index without any intervention of gifted stock pickers. Year after year, they perform better than 80 percent of the investment funds managed by highly paid specialists. Nevertheless, intuitively, we want to invest our money with somebody who appears to understand, even though the statistical evidence is plain that they are very unlikely to do so. (Kahneman, 2012)

The failing of a solely intuitive-focused design approach is also echoed in Jef Raskins web article,

The term "intuitive" is associated with approval when applied to an interface, but this association and the magazines’ rating systems raise the issue of the tension between improvement and familiarity. As an interface designer I am often asked to design a "better" interface to some product. Usually one 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 competing or the client’s own products. Even where my proposals are seen as significant improvements, they are often rejected nonetheless on the grounds that they are not intuitive. (Raskin, 1994)


A case for learned behaviours

This leads us to a strong case for not focusing solely on intuition, but also to create patterns and interactions that support easy-to-learn behaviours. At some point when we moved from hardware mobile phone interfaces to touch-screens there was a period of learning amongst users. Some patterns were easily understood whilst other took a little longer to get familiar with. But understanding a touch-screen UI was not completely intuitive. True we had touch interfaces before mobiles - think of ATM's or point-of-sale interfaces - but these interfaces did not include pinch, swipe or other mobile-specific gestures. Mobile patterns are becoming more ubiquitous and standardised, but this does not take away from the fact that some learning of the mobile UI has occurred; and some were inherited from past digital experiences. 

As designers we can support users when learning new interactions by striping away complexity, providing context, prompts, suitable feedback and messaging, Some of these topics I have already covered in an earlier blog. The challenge here is to provide enough affordance, prompts and context without overburdening the user or the UI with a traditional heavy-handed help screen approach.

In summing up, I want to reference a Smashing Magazine article by Dave Sheppard where he elegantly describes the evolution of teaching the user;

To ease a user into your application, the application needs to teach the user how to use it. Once the user has moved beyond the beginner level with that application, the application should allow the user to skip all the help boxes and tool-tips or they should be un-obtrusive enough that they are never in the way to begin with. However, teaching a user how to use your interface is not just limited to providing tool-tips and lots of descriptive fields. You can easily teach a user by setting good default data. Setting good default data demonstrates to the user how a field should be formatted or what kind of information is expected in a particular text panel. (Sheppard, 2008)




SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Kahneman: Debunking the Myth of Intuition
Spiegel Online International (May 2012)
Accessed on 26th Nov 2013

Intuitive equals familiar
J. Raskin, (1994)
Accessed on 26th Nov 2013

Evolve Your User Interface To Educate Your Users
D. Sheppard, (2008)
Accessed on 26th Nov 2013