Anatomy of Intuition

By Maurice McGinley

Published: April 22, 2013

“My reaction to someone’s touting a design as intuitive is similar to my reaction when I hear claims that instructions are easy to follow: cynicism.”

My intuitive sense must be broken. It doesn’t help me. I hear long discussions about which icon—like that in Figure 1—or layout or menu structure is intuitive, and the words just don’t make sense to me. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that my reaction to someone’s touting a design as intuitive is similar to my reaction when I hear claims that instructions are easy to follow: cynicism. They say intuitive, but I hear: “I don’t personally have any problems with it.”

Figure 1—An “intuitive” Save icon

An “intuitive” Save icon

The word intuitive has lost its meaning. What people mean when they say intuitive is not usually obvious. So, in this article, I’ll examine the anatomy of intuition. But, as tradition dictates, before we begin the dissection, I’ll kill the patient. I propose to do away with the use of the term intuitive in our UX design vocabulary and replace it with availability.

a·vail (v.)

  1. To use or take advantage of an opportunity or available resource. For example, “She did not avail herself of my advice.”
  2. To help or benefit. For example, “No amount of struggle availed Charles.”

Synonyms: help, serve, profit

a·vail·a·bil·it·y (n.)

Handiness, or the quality of being at hand when needed. The ease with which a thought comes to mind.

Availability is a word packed with well-defined meaning for science and philosophy—and can give designers practical guidance toward designing products that need no more explaining than sex.

Intuitive asks for a magic wand; availability gives us handles and levers.

For this analysis of intuition, I’ll use the framework from Jesse James Garrett’s diagram “Elements of User Experience,” shown in Figure 2. The framework comprises surface, skeleton, structure, scope, and strategy. For each of these “planes of User Experience,” availability makes it easier to understand what works and provides a bridge to relevant research in other fields.

Figure 2—Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience”

Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience”

From The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web, by Jesse James Garrett

Surface

“The surface level of an experience includes the smallest components of a design that make sense in themselves—for example, images, copy, colors, typography, and widgets.”

The surface level of an experience includes the smallest components of a design that make sense in themselves—for example, images, copy, colors, typography, and widgets. Availability at this level refers to how readily the intended meaning comes to mind. Do people understand the label? Do they recognize the icon? Is the font readable? The ease with which different understandings come to mind is a result of the

  • way our brains work
  • properties of a thing—a stimulus
  • skills and experience of the perceiving individual

The Way Our Brains Work

User interface designers frequently rely on findings from the early human-performance tradition of cognitive science, which focused on empirical analyses of perception, attention, memory, response selection, and motor control—most notably, Fitts’s Law, Hick’s Law, and Miller’s “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”

Fitts’s Law describes the time it takes to move the mouse pointer to a target area as a function of distance to the target. So, if you place targets closer or make them bigger, they’ll be easier to click. In other words, when targets are closer or bigger they are more spatially available.

Hick’s Law describes a person’s reaction time as a function of possible choices. The time it takes to make a choice increases logarithmically with the number of options from which one must choose. For example, the choice between chocolate and vanilla is quick and almost automatic, but picking a flavor becomes progressively more difficult and takes longer with each additional flavor on a menu. Your final choice becomes less cognitively available as the number of options increases.

Miller’s “Magical Number” describes the limits of human short-term memory capacity. We can keep between three and five things in mind—that is, in working memory—at a time. (Miller put the magical number at seven, but further research has determined that the magical number is Four, Plus or Minus One. See Jeff Johnson’s article “Updating Our Understanding of Perception and Cognition: Part II” for more on this.) For example, you can easily remember a shopping list of four items, but should enter longer shopping lists into your smartphone. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself in the middle of the baking goods aisle, struggling to remember what you’ve forgotten. Miller’s Magical Number is also about cognitive availability.

These laws come from research whose intent was to increase human performance, but when you apply them to a design, their effect is to make goals and objectives more available, making the user experience less effortful.

The Properties of a Thing

aff·ord·ance

The extent to which an object makes an action available to a person.

Affordance refers to the perceived possibilities for interacting with an object. For example, a text box on a Web page presents the possibility of typing text. These possibilities are available to users. Other possibilities such as changing the background color of a text box are less available. So we can also think about affordance in terms of availability.

Skills and Experience

“People’s skills and experience shape the possibilities they can realize in an object. Functions that are unavailable to novices may be readily available to experts.”

People’s skills and experience shape the possibilities they can realize in an object. Functions that are unavailable to novices may be readily available to experts. For example, while most people cannot perceive how they could record a conversation in real time using the stenographic machine shown in Figure 3, an experienced courtroom stenographer can use a stenographic keyboard as easily as you or I can use a computer keyboard. Similarly, a skilled pianist can use a piano keyboard like that shown in Figure 4 without consciously thinking about the placement of her hands; and many skilled programmers find a computer keyboard and a VI editor, shown in Figure 5, the easiest way to express their creativity. Expertise opens up the potential of tools, making functionality available to the skilled user.

Figure 3—A stenographic machine

A stenographic machine

Figure 4—A piano keyboard

A piano keyboard

Figure 5—A VI code editor

A VI code editor

A culture is a set of skills and experience that makes particular meanings of words, symbols, and other tools more or less available. So the purpose of regionalization and localization of user interfaces is to increase the availability of the intended meanings.

Design for accessibility is about making functionality and other benefits of tools available to all people—whatever their hardware, software, language, culture, location, or physical or mental ability.

Skeleton

“The overall arrangement of design elements on a screen shapes our understanding of discrete design elements. … A well-arranged skeleton makes intended meanings more available to users than unintended meanings.”

No icon, term, or any other design element in isolation has an obvious meaning. Indeed, research shows that users misunderstand any single label 80% to 90% of the time. This is because meaning is contextual. The overall arrangement of design elements on a screen shapes our understanding of discrete design elements. Garrett calls a screen’s overall layout the skeleton. A well-arranged skeleton makes intended meanings more available to users than unintended meanings.

Availability maps neatly to psychology research on the phenomenon of selective accessibility. Daniel Kahneman uses the illustration shown in Figure 6 as an example of selective accessibility.

Figure 6—Example of selective accessibility

Example of selective accessibility

From Daniel Kahneman, “Perspective on Judgment and Choice,” American Psychologist, 2003.

“As one looks at the object [A], one has immediate impressions of the height of the tower, the area of the top, and perhaps the volume of the tower. Translating these impressions into units of height or volume requires a deliberate operation, but the impressions themselves are highly accessible. For other attributes, no perceptual impression exists. For example, the total area that the blocks would cover if the tower were dismantled is not perceptually accessible, though it can be estimated by a deliberate procedure, such as multiplying the area of the side of a block by the number of blocks. Of course, the situation is reversed with [B]. Now, the blocks are laid out, and an impression of total area is immediately accessible, but the height of the tower that could be constructed with these blocks is not.”—Daniel Kahneman

We know much about the various attributes of an object that make it more or less accessible. We can increase the accessibility of thought processes through training—so we can perform highly complex activities such as playing a violin, competing in martial arts, or typing on a keyboard without conscious thought. Training to this level, however, requires repetitive effort over an extended period of time.

As the tower example in Figure 6 shows, relative comparisons are more available to us than absolute comparisons. That is, it’s faster and easier for us to evaluate one concrete thing against another than against an abstract standard such as a unit of measure. Compare the three data-representation formats shown in Figures 7–9.

Figure 7—Data as text

Data as text

Figure 8—Data in a table

Data in a table

Figure 9—Data in a graph

Data in a graph

Relative comparisons are inherently more available to us than absolute comparisons because of the way our brains work. It’s faster to assess the data in a table than in text format because the layout makes it easier to compare similar values directly against each other. A graph format is better still because the relationships among the data are even more obvious. Good data visualizations make the relationships in data more cognitively available to us.

Structure

“The skeleton might define the arrangement of navigational items allowing the users to browse categories of books; the structure would define what those categories actually were.”—Jesse James Garrett, in The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web

“We employ structure to help people experience and benefit from a design without thinking about it.”

We employ structure to help people experience and benefit from a design without thinking about it. Information architects use card-sorting exercises to develop categorization systems that reflect organizational models users already have in their heads. Interaction designers create and test prototypes to learn what swipes, pinches, and other gestures feel more natural to users.

There is a gap between doing and thinking. Doing is driving home; thinking is having to compensate for a loose ball joint in your steering. Doing is serving to your tennis opponent; thinking is being mindful not to irritate your elbow injury. Doing is changing the TV channel; thinking is having to be careful when using a jam-prone remote-control button.

Moving through a well-designed structure is a matter of doing rather than thinking. People should be able to avail themselves of the promises of a thing—whether it is a Web site or an umbrella stand—without concerning themselves with the thing itself. This is the essence of the “without thought” approaches to design of Naoto Fukasawa, IDEO, and Jane Fulton Suri.

Psychology and philosophy have drawn the line between doing and thinking in various ways. We can see it, for example, in Kierkegaard’s existential versus aesthetic spheres of morality, Dewey’s ideas of recognition versus perception as ways of seeing; Heidegger’s concepts of ready-to-hand versus ready-at-hand modes of being; and Csikszentmihalyi’s concepts of flow versus non-flow activities.

I also like to contrast experimental versus theoretical physics in this respect—for example, colliders versus chalkboards. On the doing side of the line, the tools and artifacts of interaction become psychologically invisible as if they were an extension of your physical body—like using your car’s steering wheel to turn into your driveway.

But the metaphor of drawing a line to describe the relationship between doing and thinking doesn’t really work. The division is more a matter of degrees and gradations than distinct lines. Availability describes these gradations well. We can grade categorization schemas, menu structures, and tools in general by their availability. Using a highly available tool—for example, a properly working steering wheel—requires no more explicit attention than using your hand; you need focus only on your goal. However, a tool with low availability—for example, a malfunctioning remote control—demands your full attention. A well-formed structure is highly available to the people using it.

Design should be less like theoretical physics—or chalkboard calculations—and more like particle physics. Designers should be banging things together and analyzing the damage.

Scope

“Scope describes the range of features, functions, and elements that a design comprehends. The concept of availability points to two useful design principles in this respect: simplicity and coherence.”

Scope describes the range of features, functions, and elements that a design comprehends. The concept of availability points to two useful design principles in this respect: simplicity and coherence.

Simple describes what users can grasp immediately, which is much the same as the definition of available—that is, handy, easily coming to mind. As I discussed earlier, the more elements there are in a design, the less cognitively available that design is. So, minimalism is our goal.

Coherence describes what holds, or hangs, together. Each design element should suggest the others. Within the holistic context of using a design, users should immediately recognize a feature’s role and how it relates to the whole.

Note that, in keeping with the distinction between doing and thinking, the context for judgment is using, not looking. We create our designs for practical experience, not art exhibits. To use Kierkegaard’s distinction: art is aesthetic; design is existential.

For a discussion of availability in the scope of television viewing see Anthropology of Television.

Strategy

“A strategy answers the question What is the purpose of this design? and gives us a frame of reference for decisions about scope.”

A strategy answers the question What is the purpose of this design? and gives us a frame of reference for decisions about scope. For example, the strategy of Amazon might be to sell you something now and get you to come back for more. The strategy of a car dashboard might be to improve performance and safety by decreasing your reaction time and cognitive load. All elements of a design exist to serve the strategy.

A strategy determines the goals of a design, the value it must deliver, and who should benefit from it. UX design centers on users, but business goals usually drive strategy. Successful design strategy takes into account financial and marketing value—such as price, brand, and demographic market—as well as user value.

The job of a product’s design is to create value for both the people who use it and the business that provides it. But design is responsible for only part of that value. Algorithms, code, hardware, marketing, supply chains, and employees who deliver services are also key to value creation. The specific, unique, strategic job of design is to make value available.

Design is the practice of making value available.

Conclusion

“The word intuitive has been overused to the point where it has lost its meaning.”

Does all of this boil down to semantics? Maybe. But the word intuitive has been overused to the point where it has lost its meaning. The best argument for discussing design in terms of availability rather than intuitiveness is that it’s impossible to talk sensibly about availability without referring to the value that a product makes available.

Availability asks us to keep in mind a design’s value.

9 Comments

Thanks for the article. I do agree that majority of designers who I’ve overheard using the adjective intuitive to describe the usability of an interface are simply being too lazy or ignorant of other more obvious reasons why a design works. Even worse, often intuitive is used as a part of a brief, somehow suggesting that there is a golden bullet that works on a higher level than the contexts and languages of specific user groups.

However, it is not clear to me how the term availibility can replace the term intuition when talking about the criteria that we assume lead to a design that works. Your description of availability (as an outcome) seems to me very close to the term usability. Where do you draw the line between availability and usability?

No doubt, the references listed, which inform a thorough approach to user experience design, are all highly relevant. It is just obscure to me how this resolves the valid discussion around the factor intuition in design or replaces the term—even if it is used incorrectly by most people. But maybe that’s another story.  

Please stop repeating the memory research from Miller (1956). It is not empirically well supported, and there are more modern theories of human memory that are more accurate. See the multitude of research from Baddeley, Cowan, and Tarnow (individual researchers, not a team of authors) for better theories and explanations. Yes, our memory capacity is limited, but there is nothing magic about the number 7, and it varies by age, circumstance, context, and information density.

Also, Fitts’s Law was originally proposed as a model of ballistic movement in a 3D space in 1954, well before the mouse and nearly 15 years before Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos,” in which we see a crude mouse for the first time. Although it may be applied to both the movement of a mouse and fingers on a touchpad or touchscreen, Meyer’s Law (1988) is a refinement of the original Fitts’s Law that is specific to the movement of mouse devices and acquiring targets via a pointer on a 2D screen. Interestingly, Fitts’s Law may be increasingly relevant as we move toward greater use of touch and spatial gestures, something which was rare in 1988.

Finally, I’d like to replace the term intuitive with single-trial learning, because most of the time what we really seek to design is an interaction that can be performed at once, is easily understood, and which will be remembered indefinitely. If a single interaction is so intrinsically meaningful, we do not notice the cognitive effort it required, and we describe it as intuitive.

It’s probably a good complement to read Raskin’s “Intuitive Equals Familiar” and Spool’s “What Makes a Design Seem Intuitive.”

Thanks for your comments, Michael.

Yes, the use of intuitive in design briefs was one of the motivations to write the article. I am trying to dig into just what intuitive means.

In respect to usability, I would propose that it is part of availability. Availability is the broader term, referring to the underlying value to be delivered. Usability refers more narrowly to the effectiveness and efficiency aspects of interaction.

Availability should be read as availability of value. The main advantage of the broad term availability over the broad term intuition, is that the former forces us to think about components of design in terms of the underlying value, which gives us objective criteria to work with. Intuitive too often leads to the dead end of subjectivity.

Thanks, Dave, for the updated references.

Single-trial learning is crunchy and useful, and I feel is a solid measure of one of the aspects of availability. I’m proposing that availability extends more broadly to include the business requirements of the design. I understand that single-trial learning does link back to business success, but I’m hoping that availability makes the connection easier.

I wholeheartedly endorse Jan’s reading recommendations!

My impression is that you have taken a stab at defining intuitive in this article, except you’ve used the word availability instead. As a result, this became a more abstract, academic article than it needed to be. If this were condensed to a bulleted list of criteria, or checks, to better ground the label intuitive, that might be interesting.

I think it’s simpler and more pragmatic to say that the word intuitive best describes what people intend to say when they say intuitive. It is only a matter of developing it further, grounding it in a more robust way. I feel changing terms when a common word will suffice is the definition of jargon. I think it ultimately evades the issue and serves only to make the topic more abstract.

Hiya Vlad,

Thanks for the comments!

But with respect, I differ. The move to availability does three things:

  1. It is less of a cliche than intuitive, so asks us to think a bit more about what is meant.
  2. Maps to psychological research on cognitive availability by Kahneman and others.
  3. Is more appropriate when talking about design’s role in unlocking value in a business sense. Making value available to a business makes more sense than making value intuitive for business—or other constructions.

    So I still find available more useful than intuitive in this context.

    Thanks again, Maurice

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