Anatomy of Intuition

April 22, 2013

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.”

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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


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


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. 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.


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,PDF “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.


“The skeleton might de?ne the arrangement of navigational items allowing the users to browse categories of books; the structure would de?ne 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. 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 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.


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.


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

Director, Customer-Focused Innovation at Avast Software

Prague, Czech Republic

Maurice McGinleyMaurice leads the User Experience group at AVG’s Innovation Lab in Amsterdam. Previously, he successfully bootstrapped Ovis, creator of StateAlert, a public emergency warning system that got sold to the Western Australian State government in 2007. Maurice has served as Director and Partner at the startups Xyris, in New York, and Data Diction, in Australia. He has also worked as a UX designer and innovation consultant in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and The Netherlands, creating solutions for consumer electronics, first responders, personal health, and the financial industry.  Read More

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