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I’m Boycotting “Intuitive” Interfaces

My pledge to never use the “i”-word about technology again. (I’ll need help keeping it.)
March 29, 2013

I have a problem with “intuitive interfaces.” My problem is that I keep talking about them as if they exist. They don’t. No such animal. Never has been, never will be. 

Scotty engages with the “intuitiveness” of a computer mouse.

Don’t take my word for it: Jef Raskin, a legendary human-computer interaction expert and progenitor of the Macintosh project at Apple, made the same claim. ”The impression that the phrase ‘this interface feature is intuitive’ leaves is that the interface works the way the user does, that normal human ‘intuition’ suffices to use it, that neither training nor rational thought is necessary, and that it will feel ‘natural,’” he wrote in 1994. “We are said to ‘intuit’ a concept when we seem to suddenly understand it without any apparent effort or previous exposure to the idea.” In other words, “intuitiveness” is some kind of inchoate voodoo characteristic that we ascribe to UIs that seem well designed, easy, useful, friendly… uh… oh, hell with it. “Intuitiveness” is like porn. You know it when you see it, and that’s about it. 

That’s a pretty uncritical way to engage with technology. Raskin points out (and any HCI expert or UI designer worth her salt will already know this) that “intuitive” is just a sloppy quasi-synonym for “familiar.” If you don’t feel like you have to learn how to use a tool–that you “just get it,” that you “already know,” or “it just works”–then it feels like it’s magically tapping into your ineffable “intuition.” It ain’t. You still have to learn how to use it. It’s just that the more familiar it is (or seems), the less you notice the effort of that learning (or the less effort there will be to begin with). A pen is “intuitive” because you’ve used a zillion pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and stick-shaped inscriptor-tools in your life. A computer mouse is “intuitive” for the same reason (if you were born in or after my generation). If you grew up 500 years ago in an agrarian society, you might think a plow or a scythe was pretty damned intuitive. Would you know what the $#*& to do with a plow if I put it in your hands right now? 

No technology is intuitive. It’s all just familiar or unfamiliar at first. (I coarsely groped at this idea in one of my first posts here.)

You might be thinking: OK, fine. It’s semantics. You say “intuitive,” I say “tomah-to.” If I’m not the one designing the stuff, and designers already know this, then who cares? 

Well, as interaction designer/technology researcher/filmmaker Timo Arnall convincingly argues,  a) not all interface designers necessarily know (or agree with) this idea; and b) the language of “intuitiveness”–and its close cousin, “invisible” or “natural” UI design–is a trap that sets unrealistic, unproductive and possibly harmful expectations up in the minds of its users. (I.e., the rest of us.) “Does my refrigerator light really go off? Why was my car unlocked this morning? How did my phone go silent all of a sudden? Without highly legible systems for managing and understanding all of this ‘smartness’ we are going to get very lost and highly frustrated,” Arnall writes. 

So I’m going to try my best to boycott “intuitive.” Not the UIs themselves–just the way of talking and thinking about them. So what do we talk about when we talk about UI? I think what we all want from technology are interfaces and interactions that feel familiar, legible, and evident. They should teach us in ways we would like to learn, and speak to us in a way we can understand. This doesn’t mean that technology ought never to surprise or challenge us. But desperately seeking “intuitive” feels, to me, like a kind of techno-animism. Interfaces aren’t magic, and we don’t really want them to be. To borrow from Timo Arnall: interfaces are culture. And like any pieces of culture, what they ought to do is simple: they ought to connect. 

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