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What Does it Really Mean to be Intuitive?

The highest praise a user interface can receive is to be called intuitive. The users don’t have to think about how to use the interface, they just execute the task at hand. What’s not to like about that? It is a worthy goal, but one that should be approached with caution. Triggering an intuitive response may lead the user take an action antithetical to their goals and yours. You need to understand what those goals are, how your users perceive those goals, and then design accordingly.

What is Intuitive?

An action that is intuitive is one that does not require conscious thought to execute. The user acts on instinct or deeply ingrained memory. This is a far more efficient way to act than consciously examining each step of a process, weighing your options, and then acting. That can be exhausting if every interaction with your product requires this. Instead, most users have a mental map of how they believe your product works. If they believe that what they see in your product matches that map in their head, they already know what they’re going to do. Boom, intuitive.

Black and white vintage old broken TV placed on stones near wild river flowing through forest

Different Mental Maps

The problem is that everyone who uses your product will have their own mental map and they can differ widely based on their personal experiences, cultural and social norms, and other aspects that make a person unique. You cannot account for all of them in your design. This is why it’s important to understand who your top priority users are, but even then there will be differences. Those differences mean your design should take a nuanced approach to intuitiveness.

  • What are the similarities in your target audience?
  • How might we use those similarities to determine where to focus your intuitive design?

The answers to these questions should flow from your effort to model the domain in which your product will operate.

The Wrong Intuition

Another problem is when a user believes an interface to be intuitive, but their instincts lead them astray. This occurs when their mental map differs just enough from your product, but not so much that the user is jarred out of their instinctual approach. Consider the following screenshot:

A Cancel Passes modal window with Confirm and Cancel options

I have probably interacted with thousands of such interfaces. I know how they work. I am also a Mac user, so I’m used to the primary call to action on the right. On top of that, I’m trying to CANCEL my reservations. I clicked the Cancel button 2 times before I realized I needed to click the Confirm button. And each time I had to go back through the cancellation process. Ugh.

Where you believe the interaction in an interface is intuitive, make sure you collect the analytics to determine if it really is so. How many sessions end at the point? How many paths after this point are not what you expect them to be? That could be a sign of intuitiveness run amok.

Hold Your Horses! Think This One Through

Finally, there may be actions that you don’t want your users to take unless their brain is fully engaged. These are the ones that have major repercussions either to the wallet or the amount of effort and time spent by the user. When you’re mapping out the processes you will be building into your product, look for those steps where, if done incorrectly, can lead to major pain. If you can’t make that pain unavoidable, you want to make doubly sure the user is mindful when they take that action.

This is not to say that the interface in this case should be counter-intuitive. The goal is to catch the user’s attention, get them out of the flow for a second to consider the implications of what they’re about to do. The typical approach is to use a modal “Are you sure?” window, but with a design that is clearly different from that of the current flow. You want the effect to be the same as a referee blowing a whistle.

An "Are you sure?" modal window
Are you really sure?

The Ultimate Goal

The goal is NOT to build an intuitive interface. The goal is to build an interface that is most likely to satisfy the user and, thereby, achieve your goals. An intuitive interface is a possible means to that end, but, like a hammer, it’s just one tool in your box.

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