You should avoid the term intuitive when discussing user interfaces.

In a general sense, intuition is defined as knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception, instinctive knowledge or belief or similar.

There’s hardly anything in user interfaces that you don’t have to learn. You just might have learned it long ago in a different context. Humans even have to learn to walk and talk. Some say the nipple would be the only “intuitive” interface. I’ve been told that not even breast feeding just works on first try …

If you call something that has to be learned intuitive, you render that word useless, as it now also refers to what it used to exclude. Should you just want to express easy to learn or works as expected, just do so directly. Don’t be needlessly ambiguous.

To be precise: Lacking a mind, software cannot intuit, not be intuitive, it could be intuitable (support the user’s intuition) at best.

What makes an interface seem “intuitive” is actually familiarity. It might be useful to think of familiarity coming from 3 sources:

  • Physical, real world experience that can be leveraged with metaphors and pseudo-physical interface elements (or perhaps custom interface hardware).
  • Experience with existing software.
  • Concepts/thought-models from specific fields.

Jef Raskin wrote a great Article: Intuitive Equals Familiar. Bruce Tognazzini says similar things. Also very enlightening: What Makes a Design Seem ‘Intuitive’?.

About thorwil
I'm a designer from Germany. My main interests are visual and interaction design, free/open-source software and (electronic) music.

7 Responses to Intuitive

  1. David says:

    Another interesting link about the source of that nipple quote:

  2. Jeff Sandys says:

    The freedictionary provides many examples that are outside your limited definition of intuitive (by ear, by the seat of one’s pants).
    A nipple interface is instinctive, not intuitive.
    Being familiar with (or knowing) the parts does not necessary make one familiar with the whole, the whole can be a new experience.
    You have limited the meaning of intuitive to essentially the spiritual realm, negating many of the popular meanings list in the freedictionary. You need to come up with a new word that means the act of knowing without rational thought.

    • thorwil says:

      Instinct is included in some definitions.

      What you list are not definitions, but rather expressions that have been used synonymously. But even a wider range of definitions and meanings can only be more reason to avoid the term in the user interface context, because of increased uncertainty.

      No, I don’t have to come up with a new word. My main concern is avoiding the at best meaningless and at worst misleading use of intutive in a user interface context.

      Besides, why would I bother, if I’d manage to establish a new word, surely later on people would use it to mean something else, slowly making it ambiguous, if not useless 😉

  3. Jeremy Bicha says:

    I think you’re assuming that English is perfectly logical. Intuitive does mean more than what you say it does. And words change meaning over the years. As one example, Gnome Shell isn’t a command-line interface.

    Does transitive mean the same thing as transition?

    • thorwil says:

      I don’t. But it would be good to apply some logic once in a while.

      Words may change meaning over time in cases, but intuitive has not lost it’s original meaning and there is no good replacement. Furthermore, there is no commonly understood new meaning. One person may actually mean usable based on intuition, another just works as expected and I had the displeasure to run into a guy who claims it means easy to learn, exclusively.

  4. David says:

    Jeff and Jeremy: it seems that you’re just adding another argument to support Thorsten’s point. The word ‘intuitive’ basically means whatever its speaker wants it to mean (though I still think that people describing interfaces as ‘intuitive’ usually mean ‘familiar’). Such words should simply be left out of serious discussions. There are other, more clearly defined, terms that should be used instead. You can’t argue with someone who declares one interface to be more intuitive than another. If someone says that one design is more discoverable than another, on the other hand, you can quantitatively measure the veracity of such a claim. The same goes for other measures.

    • Jeremy Bicha says:

      Ok, the way I read Thorsten’s post is that intuitive has only one major definition, which is different than how average people use the word. I’ll accept that the word isn’t very descriptive & is ambiguous (the software is intuitive for what reason?), but he can’t just say that the other definitions are wrong.

      And maybe that’s what he really meant; it just wasn’t the way it came across.