When we describe a design as intuitive, we’re using a word that means the direct perception of truth or fact, independent of any reasoning process. It’s with the lack of any reasoning process that the problem starts. UX designers who use this term are sending out hugely mixed messages. At the same time they’re talking about the need to understand users and put ourselves in their shoes, they’re using terms—like intuitive—that effectively dismiss the value of reasoning and rationale for design. They’re talking about design as something that “just works” or “works fine for me.” Designers are effectively saying, “I don’t need to think about it—nor should our users.”
In the UX designer’s case, this is probably true: He has just spent weeks or months designing a product. He sees the product in his sleep and can remember every step of each process because he has lived and breathed the product and engaged in passionate debates with colleagues and stakeholders about the details of the design. On the other hand, using the word intuitive communicates that the journey that has led to the design has gotten pushed to one side, and this undermines people’s perception of the value of the design process. Even when UX designers use phrases like “intuitive to the user,” they are making a lot of assumptions about users and extrapolating wildly from test data.
UX designers do not carry sole responsibility for this: Project requirements frequently describe the need to create “an intuitive user interface.” Marketers may also use the term in marketing the product. At best, we may think of using the word intuitive as speaking the language of our stakeholders. Nevertheless, the word intuitive describes something that is not testable, so should never be a formal requirement.
Even though accepting the label intuitive may seem to be tremendously flattering to UX designers, doing so undermines all of the work that we do as UX professionals. Why? Because, when people view a design as something that just works, without considering the context of the target user and the rationale behind the design, people no longer see user experience as a professional design discipline that is based on an understanding of the user’s needs, the technology, the context in which people will use the product, and all of the other factors that underpin a good design. Instead, UX design becomes something that the designer “just does.” And, if the designer just does it, anyone else can just do it as well. This is bad for an organization and bad for garnering support for User Experience within the organization.