Intuitive Means Familiar

I was at a holiday party talking with a professor once. Having learned that I made websites, the professor vigorously expounded about the virtues of wikis. They used them for all their classes, organizing their department’s affairs, and more! Based on their enthusiasm, it’s not unreasonable to assume they maintained their shopping lists in wiki form.

Right off the bat, the professor said:

“I love wikis because they’re so intuitive to use.”

Then, about three minutes later, they mentioned, almost in passing:

“It took me about two years to get my setup right.”

You’re Not Born With It

It’s rare that I hear a person so blatantly define “intuitive” when it comes to technology and the web, but this is almost always what a person means when they say it. Here’s one definition of “intuitive”:

Using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive

But how many things are really intuitive? Probably certain baseline human instincts are truly intuitive ((If I were smarter, I might be able to go on a coherent tangent about Noam Chomsky and language development here, but I’ll spare you.)), but not much beyond that. Unless something has existed for tens of thousands of years, your use of it probably isn’t purely intuitive.

When a person says “intuitive,” I hear “familiar.”

For instance, I recently wrote about the book Wait, and I thought a lot about when it’s advisable to act “instinctively” compared to collecting more information. I concluded that following my gut makes the most sense when I am in situations with near-identical conditions that I have encountered many times in the past. If I have solve a problem 10 times, I probably will find use familiar solution the 11th time too.

I think this idea applies to when and how people use the word “intuitively.” I perform many activities on the on the web “without conscious reasoning” because I have spent hundreds of hours repeating those tasks and learning them inside and out. ((The article “Watching Them Struggle” makes this point and was influential when I began thinking about intuitiveness.)) But that doesn’t mean Jane Doe from Colorado has too…

Jane highlights the most loaded use of “intuitive.” Because it’s a synonym of “instinctive,” its use usually connotes that the speaker thinks of an experience as universal. A website feature feels “intuitive” to them and all the other people in the room who have similar experiences—a frequent occurrence in a society stratified by profession and class—but Jane will flounder when she loads the site if its features don’t activate her prior knowledge.

Getting Constructive

I probably hear the word “intuitive” most when planning or critiquing websites, and I hope I’ve made clear how this word comes bearing some unwanted assumptions. But it also usually comes from a place of real meaning that deserves engaging. ((For a longer discussion on assuming the best, constructive criticism, and useful feedback, see “Trust is a Must: Thoughts on Successful Project Collaboration”.)) One blogger has translated what they think people “really mean” when they use “intuitive”. ((It’s a fun read but had some character encoding issues for me.))

If you replace, “intuitive” with “familiar,”—”Can you make this feature more intuitive?” becomes “Can you make this feature feel more familiar?”—you can use some probing follow-up questions to improve the clarity of the feedback and, in turn, your project’s result:

  • What other sites do that in a way you’re used to?
  • Are there alternative ways to do that?
  • Why is this the common way to address that?

Intuitiveness, Learning Curves, and Progress

Come with me on a quick tangent before we wrap up.

I hope that those three questions above show that a familiar thing is not necessarily the best answer for a certain problem even if it’s the most frequently-used solution. Familiar things have a mild learning curve, but that fact can lead us to rely on the old way of doing things.

The now-common touchscreen digital keyboard is an example of a skeuomorph, or, something designed to look like something made with a different material. ((I’ve wanted to mention skeuomorph in a blog post for ages, much like I’ve always wanted to play QINTARS in Scrabble. As of this past month, I’ve now done both :) )) In this case, that “material” is just a two-dimensional image of three-dimensional “keys.” Phone designers used a digital keyboard because some “slider” phones and Blackberries already had tiny physical keyboards on them.

Our “intuitive” use of those keyboards involves tapping on each letter to “type” out what we want. In other words, we know how those keyboards work because we’re familiar with that way of entering characters and words. However, typing on these tiny fake keyboards is nowhere near as fast as “Swype” technology (watch the video if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). However, to arrive at this innovative solution, someone had to ask themselves whether a keyboard skeuomorph was the best way to enter text on a small touch interface. Now, many touch device users have to relearn how to type, but they gain speed for their effort because Swype doesn’t insist on being “intuitive.”

Update (January 30, 2013): Just one day after posting this, I read about BlackBerry’s new phone, the Z10, that includes a new innovative way of typing by augmenting the keyboard skeuomorph with predictive words displayed on top of the digital keyboard! Read David Pogue’s New York Times review for a better explanation.

Think Carefully

So I suppose I should close by actually asking everyone to stop using “intuitive” when discussing websites. If you want to say “intuitive,” you probably mean “familiar” or “easy to learn,” which are both more meaningful. That way, when you critique a website about the fear of lions or the ability to blink, you can safely use “intuitive” and everyone will know exactly what you mean.

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