An Interface Will Never Be Intuitive

“The only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that, it’s all learned.” Bruce Ediger

For an industry that’s supposed to bring clarity to the unclear and ease of use to complicated tools, user experience design certainly relies on a lot of imprecise language and fuzzy logic. Yes, the nomenclature discussions are getting a little tedious, but they're important. How can we expect others to value what we do if we can't accurately understand it ourselves?

We often hear that design must be intuitive: users should intuitively know how to use an interface without any guidance. While this view might make sense colloquially--we want increased usability and lower cognitive load to facilitate learning--it makes some assumptions that are problematic in terms of other interface qualities and how interfaces fit within the broader context of experience.

"Intuitive" might just be shorthand for a longwinded and esoteric description dealing with usability and cognition. While these types of linguistic shortcuts certainly have their place, this particular one presents problems in terms of how we think about conceptual limits and interface design. It sets designers up for an impossible task and places the designer within a role of undue authority.

So what does intuition actually mean? In the colloquial sense, with reference to the interface, it means that a user can interact with it "naturally," without prior knowledge or increased effort for novel learning; it is already something familiar. Intuitive interfaces rely on knowledge of a similar system, which the user can transfer to the new system. When a user interacts with an intuitive interface for the first time, s/he does not need an instruction manual or to spend too much time trying to figure it out. They just get it.

It's not difficult to see how flimsy this definition is and how it can cause confusion. Designing against such a nebulous goal as intuition will almost always set one up for failure.

The actual definition of "intuitive" is associated with philosophical observation and a search for absolute truth. An intuitive concept is one that someone can observe and understand immediately, without previous knowledge bases, which presupposes a sense of certainty and fact. There is some central truth to an intuitive object that one can know fully. Applying this definition to interface design assumes that the interface is a static object that possesses truth, and that the user can access this absolute truth if only the interface is intuitive.

This is where we run into problems. If we accept that digital experience plays a part in brand strategy, and a brand is composed of narrative elements, then we need to think about the interface as a text. It is a part of the brand story, and no story has a fixed meaning. A brand is a story without an author, and an interface is part of that story--a representation of an idea, open to interpretation. Readers create the meaning; designers don't provide it.

Ediger's quote above is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but he makes an excellent point on how humans interact with objects and how learned behavior plays such a strong role in that interaction. As an infant, we have no sense of self and world; child and mother are the same, as is the mother and the nourishment she provides. I would argue that the nipple--the source of nourishment--cannot even be classified as an interface, as the self-awareness necessary to make the distinction between self and (m)other does not yet exist for the infant. Nonetheless, the nipple is the only object to which the infant relate "naturally" and "intuitively" to accomplish a goal. The nipple is the child's entire world; it is pure truth, it does not lack anything, and it is always available (of course, if any of these are not true, the infant experiences a trauma). But once the child is weaned, s/he is thrown into a world where subject and object are radically separate. And life goes on like that. Everything else is learned, including interfaces, digital or otherwise. (I'm paraphrasing Freud, Lacan, and Heidegger at various points here)

Designing interfaces to be intuitive, in the formal sense of the word, is both impossible and a bit silly. Even if it were possible to create an intuitive interface, it would mean stripping away any claims to storytelling and brand narrative. 

Perhaps a good middle ground is to simply reframe the goal. Instead of attempting to design an intuitive interface, design one that is easily learned and contextually useful. Interfaces are merely representations, and end users are the interpreters. Design for interpretation in context.

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Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.